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China can be a very DANGEROUS place when it comes to road safety. In a population of over 1.3 billion people with access to bicycles, cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, and scooters, it’s not uncommon to find DROVES of individuals driving recklessly, breaking traffic laws, and putting lives at risk just to get ahead on traffic. And yeah, that includes foreigners too!
So, whether on the streets or behind the wheels it’s good to know—scratch that, it’s CRITICAL to know ahead of time what type of traffic scenarios in China to look out for that could potentially cause great injury or, even worse, put your life on the line. Here’s my list of 15 CRITICAL things to know and look out for on the road in China:
Vehicles Come First, Not Pedestrians
That's right, one of the first and MOST IMPORTANT unwritten rules of road safety in China is that vehicles come first, not pedestrians. If you're crossing an intersection and see a car, bus, motorcycle, or scooter speeding your way, stop, get the hell out of the way, and let them pass first because 9 times out of 10 they probably won't!
Watch Out For Scooters
Scooters are widespread across China, from large metropolises to quite rural towns. They're pretty easy to get too; you don't need to take a driving test nor have a license. Foreigners can ride scooters and many cities have special lanes on the road for scooters to access.
Here's the deal: People riding scooters in China break traffic laws the most, PERIOD. Speeding, illegal turns, failure to stop at traffic lights, talking on the phone while driving, not using turning signals--this list is endless. Heck, I'll even be the first to admit that as a scooter owner of more than several years now in China I too have broken the law repeatedly. Hey, that's just the way it is.
With that, you should know that scooters are one of the most dangerous vehicles on the road in China. Drivers tend to be more careless, more likely to disregard traffic laws, and often maneuver through the streets where pedestrians wander, which all boils down to putting your life more at risk. Keep a watchful eye out!
Buses are Scary
Oh boy, keep your eyes on those buses in China! I can't stress that enough. It seems that bus drivers in China know that they rule the road, which is why they pretty much do whatever they want when they want once behind the wheel. They're renown for strong-arming their way through traffic, driving too fast at times, and driving extremely close to pedestrians when they pull in to bus stops. Again, you see a bus coming near you, get the heck out of the way!
Those Food Delivery Drivers ...
Food delivery drivers are the most likely to cause some serious harm to you on the road in China. SERIOUSLY, take every precaution when you see them. They are easily China's most notoriously reckless drivers. They wear colorful uniforms, ride scooters, and are typically men aged 21-40. They look at their phones while driving, swerve in and out lanes, speed down streets, and usually zoom out of the entrances to housing communities without looking. If you see them out on the street, you’d better watch out.
People Walk Into the Street Without Looking
I can't stress enough how much people walk into the road without looking in China. In fact, in my experience, outside of being just completely careless on their own accord, most of the time they're either looking at their cell phone or rushing to get a taxi. This makes riding in the bike/scooter lane EXTREMELY dangerous so make sure to keep an eye out and have your thumb ready on the horn.
PEOPLE Don't Look Both Ways
"Look left, look right, and look left again". Nope, that ain't happening. Piggy backing off the fact that many people in China tend to walk in the streets without looking any direction is the fact that many people do tend to look, but only in one direction and not BOTH WAYS.
Here’s the scenario: You're on your scooter and in the bike lane, but this time you're heading against the flow of traffic. The lane is big enough, so why not? As you cruise along a pedestrian walks into the lane but only looks towards the on coming traffic. And then WHAM! You run right into them. Is it their fault for not looking both ways or your fault for technically riding on the wrong side of the street?
In China it's very common to see cyclists and scooters riding in the bike lanes against the direction of traffic. It's perfectly fine to do so, though you'd think that people should know to stay on the side that follows the flow of traffic. At the same time, it's very natural for someone to walk into the street and only look towards the direction of traffic flow, though you'd also think that they should know to 'always look both ways before walking into the street’.
The bottom line: If you get behind the wheels of a bicycle or scooter in China, try to ride on the side of the road with the same traffic flow and keep an eye out for pedestrians that are crossing into the lanes. Likewise, if you are a pedestrian on the road in China, always make sure to look both ways before stepping into the lanes.
Right Turn, But No Looking Left
The most ANNOYING and DANGEROUS thing about riding on the road in China--at least for me anyways--is that many people do not look to the left when turning into the right lane.
Here's the scenario: You're on your scooter in the bike lane and on the right side of the road. You pass an intersection. Someone on their scooter—also in the bike lane on the right side of the road but riding down the street your crossing—stays at full speed, doesn't slow down, and doesn’t even turn to look at the you or the oncoming traffic once. They turn right and into your lane, nearly causing you to fall off your scooter as you swerve out the way to miss them.
Even though they're turning into your lane, it's an unwritten rule that it’s YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to get out of their way. I'd mark this as one of the most common items to be careful of when on the road in China.
Vehicles Force Themselves Through
Here’s the scenario: You're on foot and stop at a red light. The light turns green and you start to cross the street along with a crowd. Just then a car or large bus comes out of nowhere to turn right and forces themselves through, barely slowing down if at all.
It doesn't matter who you are or how busy the intersection is--I've seen drivers aggressively turn curbs and push through crowds that include children, women, and elderly. Always look left and behind you before crossing the right side of the street in China.
Cars Turning Left
It's 'dog eat dog' in China, and the idea of being first heavily applies on the road too, even if it means putting others lives at risk.
Here's the scenario: You're heading North by foot, car, or scooter. The light is red and you've stopped in traffic. AS SOON as it turns green, the first car in the turning lane heading South swerves in front of everyone, nearly causing an accident with everyone heading North. This is all too common and is something you should look out for, ESPECIALLY if you're on a scooter.
Wild Swinging Doors
There was an awful traffic video I saw years ago in China. A woman was riding her scooter in the street when someone sitting in a parked car suddenly swung their door open. The lady tried to avoid the door but was partly hit by it, causing her to fall to the ground just as a freaking city bus was passing by. She wound up falling under the bus and was crushed to death.
I always try to be aware of 'wild swinging doors' when cycling or riding my scooter on the road in China. If there's no bike lane, 9 times out of 10 I'll be riding closest to the parked cars along the road where anyone could swing open their car door at anytime and knock you me traffic. Make sure to ride slow when you are next to cars and try to keep a safe distance.
Turning Signals & Abrupt Stops
Sometimes on the road in China people turn on their turning signals just AS THEY ARE TURNING. No, they don’t do it long before to give you some kind of clue as to their intentions, but merely wait to signal while in the act of turning. By the time you do see them it's too late and you've already rear-ended their vehicle due to their abrupt changes.
Oh, and by the way, this refers to if they're using any turning signals at all. I'd say that people in cars and buses tend to follow suit; however, it's RARE for people driving scooters to use their blinkers.
Here’s the scenario: You're in the scooter lane and some man or woman, usually in their early twenties, abruptly starts zig-zagging back and forth across the lane, completely unaware—or actually, completely inconsiderate—of the fact that you and others are behind them. You'd think to yell, "This is a scooter lane. Ride in a straight line!", but that's inappropriate so you resort to beeping you horn several long times. Yeah, it happens. Be careful.
Here’s the scenario: There's a small, tight space, like an alleyway or parking lot. One car is going in, another is coming out. Both parties are so eager to get ahead first that they move forward at the same time, and in doing so, block off the remaining space around them. Guess what? Now they're stuck and yelling at each other from their windows.
Keep an eye out for these situations because not only does it take a LONG time for the parties to figure out how to deal with the situation, but the cars may also end up making a sudden jerk or move that could put you at risk if you’re passing by.
Let's Play Chicken
Drivers in China love to play chicken. Not like, but LOVE. Again, there's just this 'me first' mentality that's embedded into the culture and of which there is zero escape.
Here's the scenario, or better yet, remember that car chase scene at the end of Bad Boys where Martin Lawrence races against the villain to see who will be first to pass through a small space in a wall-barricade? Yep, that's EXACTLY how it is.
People Don't Follow the Rules When Breaking the Rules
Everyone—pedestrians, cyclists, drivers—breaks the traffic laws on the road in China every once and awhile just like everyone does everywhere else in the world. But here's the deal: if you're going to break the law on the road, at least do it the right way. Make any sense?
Here's the scenario: You're on a scooter sitting in traffic. You're a far ways down from the traffic light and can't see ahead because there are large cars and trucks blocking your view. The traffic begins to move and you move with it. Suddenly a pedestrian that jaywalked across the street hops out in front of you from the spaces in-between the cars and WHAM! Trouble in paradise.
If you're going to break the law on the road, at least do it the right way. This jaywalker shouldn’t have tried to cross the street through traffic in the first place, but hey, it happens. Moreover, in doing so they should have taken more precautions to make eye contact with drivers and stop to look at oncoming vehicles while they maneuver around. Understand now?
Well, that's my list of 15 CRITICAL things to know and look out for on the road in China. Trust me, I didn't write it to bash China, scare you off from visiting China, or to dissuade you from getting behind the wheel while you're here. Instead, I wrote this to BRING AWARENESS to common items to look out for on the road in China so that you'll know what to expect and thus can help to put yourself less at risk.
Additionally, I always recommended to newbies in China that they wait at least three months before buying a scooter or car in China. It's best to familiarize yourself with both the written AND unwritten rules of the road before throwing yourself full speed into the chaos. Hey, just take your time. Safe and happy travels!
Can you believe that I wrote this ENTIRE article on my phone? That’s dedication!
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