Driving in China

Most accidents require on the spot negotiation and are likely to draw a crowd.
Most accidents require on the spot negotiation and are likely to draw a crowd.

Talk to any Western visitor to China and one of the first observations they will offer is the apparent lawlessness of Chinese drivers and their total disregard for the safety, civility, and efficiency of orderly traffic flow.

It is true that the highways and byways of China can be a frightful and often infuriating place for foreigners.  Traffic lights and stop signs are not even suggestive.  Barriers exist only to be circumvented or moved.  And the fastest way to get from A to B has nothing to do with rights of way or civility and everything to do with beating out the other guy.

Passing on the right is commonplace.  The shoulder of the highway is just another lane.  Lane markings themselves, in fact, are merely a way to employ more highway crews.   They hold no actual meaning to Chinese drivers.

If the shoulder or emergency lane is unavailable for passing, passing on the left, even into opposing traffic, is also acceptable, if not commonplace.   Flashing your headlights for the benefit of opposing traffic is sometimes employed in these maneuvers but not mandatory.  It is a functional rather than a civil gesture.  ‘Get out of my way’ rather than ‘excuse me, my wife is in labor.’

When the electronic highway sign is red it's bad news in any language.  Congestion, congestion, and more congestion.
When the electronic highway sign is red it’s bad news in any language. Congestion, congestion, and more congestion.

I have also experienced two cars passing simultaneously in opposite directions on a two lane highway – yes, four vehicles abreast – but that requires a more experienced set of drivers as you have to be able to judge the physical dimensions of all of the vehicles relative to the physical limitations of the road.  As a rule it won’t work when trucks are involved, which they almost inevitably are.   This is, after all, China, factory to the world.

Divided roadways and highways generally preclude this safety hazard, of course, but there are frequent exceptions.  Cars and trucks alike often travel in the wrong direction on a divided highway if there is a traffic jam and they want to return to the previous exit in order to avoid it.

And on divided roads in an urban setting it is considered an illogical waste of time to travel any distance in the wrong direction merely to find a convenient and/or legal place to make a U-turn.

This road is less than a year old.  The roads get built lightning fast, but drainage is often a problem.
This road is less than a year old. The roads get built lightning fast, but drainage is often a problem.

And in China, of course, you have the added element of bicycles, scooters, and virtually every type of personal transportation device you can imagine.  Even cart-pulling donkeys are still seen in the suburbs of ultra-modern cities like Beijing.

There are, however, traffic laws and regulations in China and they are very much aligned with the laws and regulations you will find in Europe or the United States.  As is the case at so many levels in China, however, it is the unwritten laws, not the official regulations, which govern everyday life and behavior here.

Such unwritten but universally accepted norms are, despite appearances, entirely logical and efficient.  But only if viewed through the Chinese cultural lens.  Which is the case, of course, with just about everything in China, which is why there is, I dearly hope, an audience for bloggers like me.

The Chinese lens, of course, is built on a long and rich historical tradition, much of it spent in self-induced isolation from the rest of the world and some of it spent, undeniably, in effective occupation by foreign powers with self-serving objectives.  (I will have much more to say on the differences between Western and Chinese culture in future posts.  I thought it best to start on a lighter note to avoid scaring off the more casual reader.)

Much of the Chinese lens, however, is simply fashioned by some over-riding aspects of Chinese reality that are simply difficult to ignore in any aspect of life.

The first, of course, is the sheer number of people who call China home – just under 1/5 of the entire population of the planet.  There are 90 Chinese cities with a population of 1 million people or more.  The collective population of China’s five largest cities, in fact, is greater than the population of any country in Europe, with the exception of Germany, and equals the combined populations of Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands.  (That’s just five cities, remember, out of 90 with a population in excess of one million people.)

The second reality that influences every aspect of life here, including driving, is the sheer pace and magnitude of change that has taken place since Deng Xiaoping plotted the path that has led to China becoming the world’s second largest economy, and world’s largest automotive market, an accomplishment that has lifted 300 million Chinese from poverty in less than one generation, the greatest such transformation in history.

Logistics is cheap but safety can be compromised.
Logistics is cheap but safety can be compromised.

A few years before Deng’s announcement that ‘to get rich is glorious,’ I had the then rare opportunity of visiting Guang Zhou, then known as Canton.  And while it was a large city even then the airport was the size of an airline lounge in a major airport today and the experience of having ridden in a private automobile was quite rare.  Even the taxis were of the pedal variety.

In 2010, by contrast, the city of Beijing – one city, and far from China’s most populated – registered more than 700,000 new automobiles in one year.  That’s, on average, just under 3,000 additional cars entering the streets of one city each working day.  (A major element to Beijing’s pollution challenge, to be addressed in a later blog.)

In 2012, in fact, there were more new cars sold in China (15.1 million) than existed in 1999, bringing the total number of cars on the streets of China to 240 million, a 16 fold increase in a little over a decade.

Drivers will seldom encounter, as a result of both of these realities, ‘free of oncoming traffic’ or ‘an intersection that is clear’, concepts on which many of the West’s driving regulations are based.  If you wait until the intersection is clear before making a right hand turn at most urban intersections you may as well pull over and read The Iliad cover to cover while you wait.

And with new cars goes new drivers.  Setting the variability in year-to-year population growth aside, the streets of the West are, on average, populated with drivers with an average driving experience of 20-30 years, more or less.

In China, by contrast, I’m reasonably confident in saying that the average driver has, on average, less than five years of experience.  Statistically, that’s tens of millions of drivers who are essentially new to driving.

And here’s the kicker.  The experience curve is unlikely to have any correlation to age.  In my own experience it appears there might even be an inverse relationship – i.e. the younger the driver, the more likely they are to have more, not less, driving experience.

Certainly the value of the vehicle is irrelevant.  In Western cultures the driver of an appallingly expensive super-luxury car is likely to be older, and thus more experienced and conservative in their driving habits.  In China, however, the driver of the top-of-the-line Mercedes or BMW idling next to you at the stoplight may well have gotten his or her license just a few days prior.  The twenty-something young male driving the Ferrari while talking on his mobile phone and smoking a cigarette (both technically illegal) may well be driving his first car.

On the surface it all adds up to what appears to be, to the Western eye, utter and appallingly dangerous chaos.  As Westerners, however, we are taught to think in linear terms.  For us, the rules of driving are all about orderly flow.  The concepts of right of way, predictability, and the collective safety and convenience of the whole driving population are at the heart of our traffic norms.

For the Chinese, however, driving is all about getting from A to B as quickly as possible.  Collective convenience is of little concern.  Predictability is considered largely unnecessary to the flexible and urgent-minded Chinese.  And safety, as I will discuss in a future post, is a social priority more prevalent in societies further along in satisfying Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In the end Chinese driving will make a lot more sense to you if you think in terms of fluid dynamics than the linear notion of orderly and pre-defined traffic flows.

Think, for example, of an intersection at the junction of two rivers.  Does the water from either river stop and wait its turn before merging with the water from the other river?  No.  The two combine relatively seamlessly and continuously.  They flow into each other rather than yielding, one to the other, in alternating cycles.

So it is with Chinese drivers entering a new road or highway.  When turning right on a red light or stop sign you must, in fact, be careful not to slow down.  The unsuspecting driver behind you will surely ram you.  It’s better, in fact, not to even look to your left until well into the intersection.  Otherwise you risk confusing the drivers already there and causing massive congestion.

And as in a river, all of the lanes of traffic are expected to move as one.  If the driver in the lane next to you sees an obstruction up ahead you can assume that he or she will soon be in your lane, forcing all lanes to move in unison or otherwise resulting in a lot of crumpled steel.

The logic of the apparent chaos doesn’t stop there, however.  Many of the unwritten rules of driving in China are based on the mathematical laws of bumper geometry, a skill at which Chinese drivers seem to naturally excel, perhaps explaining why Chinese students consistently outscore their Western counterparts on standardized math exams.

Contrary to the logical conclusion of the unschooled driver the question is not which vehicle has the most advantageous bumper position for inflicting damage but which vehicle is in the best position to control the damage.  There is a difference.

Policemen are seldom seen on the highways.
Policemen are seldom seen on the highways.

Victim or villain, an accident causes delay for everyone and nothing is more precious to the modern Chinese than time itself.  There is, after all, a fortune to be made by those who arrive there, wherever there might be, first.  (As every Chinese knows, Deng Xiaoping decried that ‘some shall get rich first,’ a plea for patience that has somehow become a national call to arms – or riches, in the case of modern China.)

Such delay is greatly compounded by the fact that the participants in all but the most serious traffic accidents are expected to negotiate a settlement on the spot, a spectacle that inevitably involves a crowd of curious onlookers anxious to witness the entertainment that is Chinese negotiation (more on that in a future blog).

Unfortunately, animals aren’t generally aware of the laws of fluid dynamics and many enterprising farmers and shepherds, it appears, take advantage of that fact.  A colleague of mine was driving in the countryside one evening while on holiday when she encountered a herd of sheep in the middle of the road.  Unfortunately, she killed 22 of them before coming to a stop.  (Her brother, a passenger, subsequently noted, “There were legs everywhere.”)

Conveniently, however, the farmer and his wife were sitting beside the road and were anxious to negotiate a settlement for the dead sheep.  No tears were shed.  The couple, in fact, started a fire and made tea while my colleague called her insurance company.  Farmers herding their animals into the middle of the road in the darkness of night, in turns out, was a cottage industry in this area and the agent kindly told her how much she should pay per animal, on the assumption that she was not looking to keep the carcass and meat.  (She wasn’t.)

Pedestrians, at times, often show a similar disregard for the laws of fluid dynamics.  While pedestrians technically have the right of way in China, no living Chinese expects that right of way to be honored.  It is surprising, therefore, how frequently pedestrians will step out into traffic before making any assessment of either traffic or an imminent change in a streetlight.

It is common, as a result, to see pedestrians stuck in the middle of traffic with vehicles whizzing by on both sides, a reality greatly complicated by the fact that virtually all pedestrians and cyclists take the diagonal path across intersections when making a turn rather than taking the safer but longer L-route that Westerners are taught to use.  You can imagine how much it adds to the chaos of a 32-lane intersection (not at all uncommon in China’s larger cities) when you add 100 or more pedestrians and cyclists moving in diagonal patterns across the intersection to the mix.

In the end, however, it somehow works.  It can, in fact, verge on the artistic.

And it’s all because of the power of blocking, using another car’s advantageous position to create your own.  It is both a science and an art form and you must learn it if you have any desire to drive here – and survive.

As in American football, the vehicular block, while hopefully not involving any physical contact, appears to be a rather simple and straightforward maneuver.  Locate others to absorb the potential pain that may otherwise be inflicted on you and use their potential doom to sneak around the potential crisis unharmed.

The simple block.  Positioned correctly everyone gets to ignore the right of way.
The simple block. Positioned correctly everyone gets to ignore the right of way.

It acquires its artistry because there is virtually no limit to the number of cars that can participate in a single, well-placed block, creating a virtual stream of cars cleanly, and without hesitation, befouling, both ethically and technically, the laws of right of way.

The lead car in a line of cars turning left at a crowded intersection, of course, has to have the sense to anticipate an impending traffic light change and achieve physical ownership of the intersection first.  That, however, is one of the easier jobs since the Chinese do not subscribe to the American design notion of placing traffic lights in the middle of the intersection where only the audience drivers can clearly see the current status of the light.

It is vehicles 2 through 5 or so which have the tougher assignment and determine the ultimate effectiveness of the block.  If they position themselves effectively, and assuming that there isn’t a particularly brave and/or skilled driver capable of breaking the block coming the other way, virtually all of the vehicles turning left can do so before the oncoming cars, with the technical right of way, mind you, can even progress into the intersection.  (They do have turn arrows here, but I’m unclear why, since a green left turn arrow does not mean the oncoming traffic has a red light.)

Done well, the extended block is a thing of absolute beauty, not unlike the choreography of a flowing folk dance.  Symbiosis among strangers, a phenomenon you will seldom encounter in Chinese culture where almost all obligation, civil or otherwise, requires an established personal relationship of one form or another.

The worst accidents, of course, involve pedestrians or cyclists.  In this case a man on a scooter was clipped by a city bus.  He's sitting on the ground next to the bus.  He doesn't appear to be seriously hurt but he will right there until the police come and negotiations begin.
The worst accidents, of course, involve pedestrians or cyclists. In this case a man on a scooter was clipped by a city bus. He’s sitting on the ground next to the bus. He doesn’t appear to be seriously hurt but he will sit right there until the police come and negotiations begin.

If the block is broken, however, or if there is a foreigner ignorant of Chinese driving etiquette in the mix, the hapless left-turners eddy around the car in front of them, much like a moving river eddies around a rock, until they are lined up, 3-10 wide, depending on the size of the intersection, ready to create a new extended block given the slightest opening in oncoming traffic.  (The same thing happens if the driver in front is considered too deliberate, even in the rare absence of oncoming traffic.

Cement trucks, of course, make the best blockers, both because of their mass and the fact that they are surprisingly nimble given the weight of their loads.  And there are many subtleties to the game that are only learned with experience.

I recently had a particularly close call with a bus driver (There are 20,000 of them operating in Beijing.) who refused to let me in even though I was unexpectedly losing my lane and not overtly jumping.  He, of course, was bigger and was not driving his own vehicle.  I, however, knew that he had a commercial license on which he depended to feed his family.  In the end, to the horror of my passenger, I knew he would make his point but ultimately back down.  And less than 5 cm from putting his massive bumper into my driver door, he did.  (He controlled the bumper; I controlled the damage.)

Despite all of this blocking and flowing, traffic be damned, there is an almost total absence of road rage in China.  In my six years in China I have not seen a single case of true rage.  My own driver, who takes me to work during the week, will pull in front of a truck driver and slam on his brakes when he feels offended, but he has never raised his voice or his finger.  (I will explain this lack of rage in a later post.  The root cause helps define the entire culture.)

Such is the duality of China.  On the one hand crowded, chaotic, and seemingly without civility, and on the other fluid, even graceful, and, in the end, amazingly effective.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.