Monday, June 18, 2012

How to drive in China

My friend Joey Zhou is a Chinese-Australian who has spent the last few months living back in the motherland. He figures he's been there long enough to compile a top 20 tips on how to drive a car in China:

  1. Speed limit? What speed limit? 
  2. Indicators are NOT a standard feature on cars. 
  3. There is no such thing as a one way street. 
  4. Talking on the mobile phone while driving is compulsory. 
  5. Traffic lights are only suggestions. 
  6. Electricity is expensive, so street lights are only turned on in some areas. 
  7. If you are driving 60kmph on the freeway, yep, go ahead and hog the overtaking lane. 
  8. Roundabouts are for drivers with real balls! 
  9. If you want to turn left, please do it from the right-most lane. 
  10. Use of high beam is mandatory - even during the day! 
  11. A part of your car should ALWAYS be outside of the parking space, so no one parks next to you. 
  12. The footpath is just another lane on the street, so please don't slow down. 
  13. While reversing, please keep your eyes to the front only. 
  14. Leave a gap in the traffic jam is a big No-No! 
  15. A driveway is just another awesome parking spot! 
  16. Truck drivers won't notice your car unless its under their wheels.
  17. Bicycles and motorbikes should always travel in opposite directions, so you don't them from behind. 
  18. Pedestrians are there to test your car's brake system and horn. 
  19. Hold your child on your lap in the front seat, to be used as a secondary airbag. 
  20. Swearing and cursing while driving is therapeutic. Don't hold it all in, you're gonna explode one day! So just let it out...

China's overall poor standard of driving and high rate of fatalities is well-known. It's easy to quip that it's just an "Asian drivers" problem writ large, it has a lot more to do with history. Simply put, cars are a relatively recent addition to Chinese life, as before its economic boom only the very wealthiest people were able to drive one. Then within the space of a few years, the car arrived and the roads were filled with new drivers.

Most people in Western countries with long histories of car ownership have developed not just a system of rules governing driving, but an unofficial culture of driving. While most of us have probably had at least a few paid lessons behind the wheel, so much of what we learn about driving comes from our parents, both consciously (advice) and unconsciously (observing). Most Chinese drivers however do not have that opportunity to learn from their parents, who might also be learning for the first time. Instead they learn from instructors who themselves may have little idea of what makes a good driver. And that's not even mentioning that learner drivers don't even have to have any experience driving on an actual road to be given their license - they need only drive round a practice course. It's the sort of thing that might take a generation or two to properly improve.


  1. China is very interesting.

    Even though so many people act as if China's takeover of the world is imminent, and treat it as an economic giant, many people seem to overlook the fact that in many ways, China is still very much a poor, 3rd world country, and tend not to recognize that much of China's current success comes simply from leveraging its massive size and population.

    China's current growing pains are probably not too dissimilar from the growing pains Western countries had to undergo when they first modernized and started booming economically.

  2. I live in China and have a van and a motorcycle. I think the problems above are caused by:

    1) An extreme sense of selfishness in just about every area of Chinese culture. Driving like no one but you is important is just one example. Not standing in line or looking at your children with the attitude that their primary purpose in life is to give you face and/or provide for your retirement are others.

    2) Most Chinese culture hate the driving and other bad public habits (smoking, breaking in line, spitting, defecating in an elevator, etc.) just as much as foreigners do. The difference is that in Chinese culture no one else EVER corrects another's bad behavior. The result is that most people are either overly submissive or bullies and the bullies are NEVER challenged.

    3) Chinese traffic police are very, very, very lazy. They have lots of them but they don't really do anything most of the time. I don't think most of them even have the authority to write a ticket.

    4) There is almost zero enforcement of traffic regulations. A black sedan blatantly ran a light right and almost hit me one day. I stopped and blocked him so that the traffic officer standing right beside us could do something but instead he did nothing at all. I know an English-speaking police officer. I asked him one day what he'd do if he saw someone driving on the wrong side coming right at him. He said, "I will leave he alone."

    Driving in the US is different because people are raised to be more considerate of others, people don't take crap of of each other in public, and we have rule of law that is actually enforced by the police.

    1. Thanks Mark, great comment.
      Even though drivers in Western countries like Australia can get angry and abusive at times on the road, I think that does act as a form of social control, in which drivers are made more aware if they have done something stupid.