Driving in China
This article is a travel topic.
Most visitors find they have enough trouble surviving Chinese traffic without actually taking the wheel. It is generally best to just rent a car with a driver, or to employ a driver if you buy a car. At Chinese wages, the cost of the driver is quite low.
You cannot drive with an International Driver's Permit in mainland China; China has not signed the convention which created IDPs. You need a Chinese license to drive in China.
PRC laws say that foreign residents can have driver's licenses and that an IDP can be converted to a local license, possibly with an additional examination. Actually getting a license may be complicated. The particular complications seem to vary from place to place and over time.
- First there is a computerized theory test of one hundred (mostly) multiple choice questions with 90% as a pass mark; if you do not pass, you can do a second test without paying any further fee. In major cities, these tests are available in multiple languages. In smaller places, the officials may insist you do it in Chinese. Some allow you to bring a translator; some do not.
- Generally, but not always, you are excused from the actual driving test if you have a foreign license.
- Some foreigners report that Chinese friends suggested a small gift to the local officials and it helped greatly; others have been told by their Chinese friends that such a move would be foolish and dangerous.
In most places, private tutoring is allowed given common sense and reasonable care, that means in practice that at least one person in the car must have a valid license, but not necessarily the driver.
At least in some cities electric scooters are legally treated as bicycles. You do need to register the vehicle, but only with a bicycle license which is cheaper and easier than a motorcycle license. You do not need a driver's license to ride it. There may be restrictions in where you can ride it, e.g. not in the main traffic lanes.
In mainland China, traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road. Various neighbors — Hong Kong, Macau, India, Nepal and Pakistan — drive on the left.
The official driving code in the People's Republic of China is the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国道路交通安全法). It applies to all vehicles in China except military vehicles. A vehicle with a government or military (white but occasionally blue) license plate may not follow any rules. It may not stop at a red light or go the wrong direction.
There is a supplementary regulation to the Road Traffic Safety Law (中华人民共和国道路交通安全法实施条例) which specifies how specific regulations in the main law are supposed to be carried out.
Increasingly, Chinese Police tend to accept the IDP (also called IDL or IDD) or translations to the format of an IDP. They focus very much on their on-the-spot judgment of the driver being sufficiently skilled and experienced to drive safely with respect to his own and others safety. (But be careful if you want to use a IDL as it is not officially accepted in China and driving without a Chinese license can get you up to 14 days imprisonment. In Shenzhen for example it is currently illegal to do so and you will be very likely checked as foreigner. Especially when you pass the SEZ checkpoints.)
In case of an accident, if it is minor as a scrape, most people just drive on. If you stop and agree about whatever, you can then continue. It is common that the failing driver pay about 100RMB or so to the other driver, and that is then the end of the matter. If you disagree, you must not move the cars until the police arrive, which can take time. They usually check registration and licenses, and photograph the incident. In case of personal injury, you should stop and offer assistance.
Beware of large imported luxury cars. Sometimes they belong to gangsters or to young immature relatives of senior party or other officials and consider themselves to be above the law, which unfortunately in the still corruption prone China, they often are.
If you suspect that the police have taken bribes from the other party, which happens, make them aware that you know about the Ministry of Supervision (which ruthlessly deals with corruption), the Olympic Committee and the Tourist Complaint Board. It can have a profound effect on procedures. Police in China are usually very helpful and understanding towards visitors.
Speed limits are as follows:
- 30 km/h (19 mph) on city roads where there is only one lane per direction, 40 km/h (25 mph) on China National Highways;
- up to 70 km/h (43 mph) on city roads where there is a major road with central reservation or two yellow lines, 80 km/h (50 mph) on China National Highways;
- 100 km/h (62 mph) on city express roads;
- 120 km/h (75 mph) on expressways.
Tolerance is generally around 10 km/h (6 mph). Some expressways may have tolerance set all the way up to 20 km/h (12 mph); however, anything around 15 km/h (9 mph) to 20 km/h (12 mph) over the stated speed limit is relatively high risk.
Speed traps are conveniently identified with the characters "雷达测速区" (radar speed check zone) or "超速摄像" (speeding detection camera).
Penalties for exceeding the speed limits are as follows:
- up to CNY 200 for excess speeds over 10 km/h but under 50% of the speed limit. Example: if driving at 100 km/h (62 mph) in a 80 km/h (50 mph) zone.
- up to CNY 2,000 and possible loss of license for excess speeds over 50% of the speed limit. Example: if driving at 190 km/h (118 mph) on a 120 km/h (75 mph) expressway.
Speeders are commonly known as biao che (飙车).
The physical condition of roads and road maintenance varies greatly from municipality to municipality. WARNING to drivers and cyclists: it is not uncommon to find an open man hole cover or large crevice on a newly paved or otherwise smooth road.
Turning off of main roads may require technical off-road driving skills and equipment..
In major city roads traffic is often congested, even on the myriad of city ring roads (except those on the outer fringes of the city). Beijing comes in at the worst (comparatively), despite five ring roads and nine arterial expressways. Shanghai ranks relatively better, with elevated expressways and tunnels.
The congestion is far more complex than that in Western countries. Bicycles swarm everywhere. In many areas, there are also lots of motorcycles. In the smaller cities, anything from tractors to bullock carts may turn up.
China National Highways
Beijing municipality is the only administrative unit where tolls are not charged for China National Highways. Elsewhere, though, these are toll roads on the national, and sometimes on the provincial level as well.
G-level (national) China National Highways are a pleasure to drive on. The speed limit is 80 km/h (50 mph) but cars often zip at speeds over 100 km/h (62 mph), thanks to the relative absence of speed detection cameras.
S-level (provincial) highways may be less smooth to drive on. Unlike national highways, sometimes there is no central reservation or road separation, and you may be limited to one lane per direction.
X-level (county) highways are not necessarily the worst to drive on, but they are challenging. More challenging are township-level highways. Some of these roads may be in areas officially cordoned off to the visiting foreigner.
Expressways and express routes in China are a godsend, with traffic signs in both English and Chinese, emergency facilities, service areas, sufficient filling stations, plenty of exits, high speed limits, and the relative lack of traffic jams.
Although in English, both express routes and expressways are referred to as "expressways", their Chinese counterparts are named differently. "Express routes" are written 快速公路, whereas expressways are written as 高速公路. The idea is that express routes liaise inside of cities and larger municipalities, whereas expressways do the national work, liaising from one centre to another.
Express routes have lower speed limits than expressways. In Beijing, a few expressways have speed limits below express routes: these are the Jingjintang Expressway (Beijing segment) and the Jingha Expressway (Beijing segment). They are clocked at 90 km/h (56 mph).
Chinese traffic is distinctly dangerous for vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. Road accidents in China are common and often fatal.
According to WHO  "In China, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people between 15 and 45." According to Chinese statistics , China has about 100,000 traffic deaths a year, more than twice the number in United States even though the US has more than four times as many cars , . WHO, however, estimates that the Chinese traffic death toll is closer to 250,000 .
To a newcomer, Chinese traffic appears to have no rules or, if there are rules, it appears they are neither followed nor enforced. In reality, of course, there are rules; they do generally manage to avoid hitting each other. However, Chinese rules are very different from what most travellers are used to. To Western eyes, bad driving is the norm, and insane or suicidal behaviour behind the wheel is fairly common.
Do not assume that Chinese drivers will follow any rule you know.
Foreign drivers must try to adapt to this (or, perhaps more sensibly, give up and take taxis or hire a driver!). You do not have to learn to drive like a Chinese, but at least you should not be surprised when they do. There is absolutely no point getting angry if someone cuts you off, or drives against the red light or on the wrong side of the road. You simply yield, and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Every car/driver has a "body language" which predicts what they will do next. It is essential to learn this "body language" and drive by it. If you are driving down a four lane road, and the lane in front of the taxi to the right of you and slightly ahead of you is blocked, your lane ahead is free, immediately assume the taxi will move left into your lane without any warning. This sort of thinking ahead, or defensive driving, can help you avoid many problems but of course you cannot predict everything that may happen.
Another way to look at it is that there are only two rules you must obey, both equally important. Don't hit anything, and don't get hit by anything.
Despite all the above, many foreigners do drive in China and, after adapting, some feel reasonably comfortable and confident about it.
Also most cars do not have seat belts.
Right of way
The concept of right-of-way is quite different in China than in many other countries. Think more "First is Right"... or less succinctly, any vehicle with a slight position lead or access to a gap before another vehicle has defacto right of way to enter that gap. Therefore-
Merging- Vehicles depart from intersections, side streets, alleys and parking lots, merging onto any road without yielding to traffic already underway on that road (and often apparently without a glance at oncoming traffic). If the merging driver can reach any opening in traffic, the oncoming cars are expected to yield and allow the merge.
Lane Changes- Lane changes and turns are often signaled, but then the "First is Right" rule reigns, and yielding is expected of a trailing vehicle, even if only trailing by a small margin. Imagine where the collision dent will be - if someone enters your lane and you strike the side of their vehicle, it will be assumed that you failed to yield.
Left turns- At intersections, upon a Green-from-Red light change, vehicles intending to turn left across straight-through traffic will usually enter the intersection to accomplish their turn before straight-through traffic can proceed. While this may be reasonable in intersections without a dedicated Left Turn Arrow, expect this to occur even if there is little or no straight-through traffic approaching the intersection. Allowing the turning vehicle(s) to complete the maneuver is the best practice. Such turns are aided by the "Yellow-before-Green" traffic light sequence common in China. Furthermore, observe this protocol and use a Red-to-Green light change as defacto Left Turn Arrow. If possible use a leading turning vehicle as a shield. Be aware that vehicles behind you (using you as a shield) will often try to veer to either side of you, completing their turn without regard for your situation. As always, "First is Right"; trailing traffic is expected to yield. In other words, a "new" green light is usually regarded as a "left arrow".
Regarding left hand turns in general; a vehicle desiring to turn left across oncoming traffic will not consistently yield to oncoming, established traffic and await a "safe" opening. Any opening may be exploited, the required minimum size of the opening apparently depends on the left turning driver's sense of self-preservation (larger vehicles and poorer quality vehicles will take more chances). Oncoming vehicles which slow in wariness of a possible ill-advised turn, will often prompt the turing driver to commit. Oncoming drivers are advised to continue without pause, while preparing for heavy braking or lane changes to accomodate the turner.
Car-pedestrian interactions are complicated; ubiquitous pedestrians, bikes, and cycles, often acting oblivious or even negligent toward surrounding traffic, are generally considered to have possessed Right of Way in any collision between them and a vehicle. If a larger vehicle strikes a pedestrian or rider, the larger vehicle will generally be assumed liable. Bearing that in mind, vehicles will use their speed and security advantage, with liberal applications of the horn, to maneuver through even densely occupied crossings. Aware pedestrians will generally expect a vehicle will force through a walk way, and are often confused if the vehicle halts to allow them passage. Painted cross walks (white bars painted on road ways) are not typically observed as "pedestrian protected" areas, but woe to a driver who strikes a pedestrian there.
The general rule appears to be keep moving no matter what. Cutting people off, swerving into the oncoming lane, driving on the shoulder, or in a fenced-off bicycle lane, or the wrong way down a divided highway, are all fine as long as they keep you moving in the right general direction and do not cause an immediate accident.
Two-way traffic everywhere
Bicycles and motorcycles regularly, and cars sometimes, ignore one-way signs. On divided highways, seeing pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles going the wrong way down the shoulder is entirely normal, and a few go the wrong way beside the center fence. At traffic circles (roundabouts) drivers hate going around the island in the middle if they can avoid it; they will often just swing left instead. Lane markings are also routinely ignored; for example, taxis often go straight through an intersection via a lane marked as left turn only because that gets them past other cars.
On newer roads there may be, for example, a roughly triangular traffic island southwest of an actual intersection. Two sides are roads; the third is a curving lane intended for drivers making a right turn form eastbound to southbound. In China, drivers turning left from northbound to westbound routinely use that lane.
Many Chinese cities have bicycle lanes fenced off on either side of the road. These carry two-way traffic: bicycles and motorcycles plus the occasional car, truck or pedestrian. Cars routinely take to these lanes if traffic in the main lanes is jammed; they then honk at bicyclists to get out of the way.
Even the sidewalks often carry two-way bicycle and motorcycle traffic, plus the odd car going to or from a parking spot. Even on the sidewalks, vehicles honk at pedestrians to get them out of the way.
Lorry drivers may not bother with switching on lights at night. You should. Switch on your headlamps -- all lights on, in fact, if there is no other vehicle approaching you. Please be aware in doing this, if the local police catch you in a vehicle with lights on during daytime, you will be fined.
Few Chinese drivers seem to know about dimming their headlights for approaching cars. Except on some freeways, driving at night is unpleasant and dangerous. Avoid it if at all possible.
When driving at night, be very aware that people often walk in the middle of the road, with the back to the oncoming traffic, in dark clothes. This is one reason local drivers do not often dip the lights. In the country, there may even be people sleeping on the road.
Bicycles without reflectors and motorcycles without lights are also fairly common. Both are sometimes on the wrong side of the road.
Overtaking on the right, despite being illegal, is very common in China. One reason is that slow vehicles often drive in the center lane of multi-lane roads, If you find yourself behind such a vehicle and want to pass on the right, be alert for anything from motorcycles to horse-drawn carts in the right lane.
Public buses, and many private buses, rather than acting as professional drivers responsible to their human cargo, are often among the most aggresive drivers; Many in the countryside routinely ignore stoplights or fail to slow while turning, will pass stopped or slower traffic even if this requires using the oncoming traffic lanes, and will often employ their sheer size to enforce merging. Again, "First is Right" ... if the front of a vehicle hits the side or rear of another vehicle, the front-dented vehicle is assumed at fault, no matter the circumstances that preceded the collision.
Newbies are often marked with the label 实习, but their driving quality varies from acceptable to deplorable. Stay away from them if you can -- they are often overwhelmed by the traffic too!
The Chinese climate is generally conducive to motorcycle riding, and you see bikes everywhere. However, the traffic is definitely not easy to cope with. Nor is Chinese bureaucracy! It can be quite difficult for a foreigner to get the drivers license, insurance and permits to travel around China on their personal motorcycle. Despite that, some tourists may want to try it.
There are some restrictions. Motorcycles are forbidden on most freeways and some cities forbid them in the downtown core, in an effort to control traffic congestion. For example, motorcycles are banned from downtown Guangzhou and Hangzhou, and in certain areas of Beijing and Shanghai. Riding a motorcycle into these prohibited areas can lead to fines and possible confiscation of the bike. There can also be licensing complications; for example in some places a bike registered in a suburb cannot legally be ridden in the nearby city.
The majority (70% at a guess) of Chinese motorcycles are 125 cc, with 50, 90 and 150 also moderately common. There are also many scooters and three-wheel motorcycle-based cargo vehicles, most with 125 engines. At least in some cities you cannot register anything larger than 250 cc. A 125 cc plain-jane Suzuki sells for around ¥4000 ($600 US). A fancier bike with road racer or off-road pretensions would be a bit more, a Chinese brand somewhat less. Some Chinese companies build their own chassis but buy engine/transmission assemblies from Suzuki or Honda; these are probably the best value. Of course, at the lowest end are simply bicycles that have been fitted with engines to function like motorcycles, something probably only seen in China.
You can also find imported Japanese bikes in most cities. Look on the outskirts for motorcycle repair shops and eventually you will find one with some older model XR's or CBR's or the like. A 10 year old CBR400 should be about ¥4000 in good shape. The Honda XR250 is also fairly common but are a bit more expensive around ¥10,000 for a 5-8 year old bike. The laws are not very clear on these bikes, if you buy one be careful of the police they may confiscate the bike. (Don't be afraid of ignoring the police as it is very very common in China.)
Few imported motorcycles meet the homologation requirements, including some BMW and Honda. Even if they are considered "big bikes", they can be registered in some Chinese cities. Ask the selling shops for help.
Jialing and Zhongzhen started selling 600 cc motorcycles on the Chinese market, price including registration should start at about 35 000 Yuan.
Chinese often ride without helmets, or with the helmet on but the chin strap undone. Three people on a motorcycle or two on a bicycle is completely normal, as is having passengers ride sidesaddle. Three on a bicycle or up to five on a motorcycle are sometimes seen. Loads of a cubic meter or so are common for both bicycles and motorcycles, and much larger loads are sometimes seen.
The most interesting bikes in China are Chang Jiang . Back in 1938, BMW designed a 750 cc flat twin side-valve sidecar rig for the German army. At the end of the war, the Russians moved the entire factory to the Urals and began producing Dnieper and Volga bikes to that design. They also gave or sold China the equipment and Chang Jiang are the result. There's also a modernised version with overhead valves and electric starter. These are not your high performance sport bike; even the new OHV model is only 32 horsepower. However, they were designed for military use and are very solidly built. They are 20-odd thousand yuan new. They are invariably sold and ridden with the sidecar; it might not be possible to license them without it.
There are lots of older Chang Jiangs around and if you buy one that is old enough, it may be classed as an antique vehicle. This might mean it is exempt from your country's import restrictions; most safety and pollution laws have some sort of exemption for antiques. This is risky; some people have lost bikes at customs. You need a thorough understanding of your country's regulations before even considering it.
One vendor that does this type of export is Sidecar Solutions  in Beijing. They also rent bikes, organise tours, and help with Chinese drivers licenses. Another Beijing Chiang Jiang specialist with similar services is Gerald . Shanghai has a dealer called Wild Wolf Sidecar  and a motorcycle club  that includes many Chiang Jiang riders. It is common for a rebuilt machine from one of these vendors to cost somewhat more than a new bike straight from the factory would; people say they are worth it because of the better quality control.
A real fanatic might consider riding a Chang Jiang from China to Europe using routes in the Europe to South Asia over land and Silk Road itineraries. You could get service on the bikes in Russia from people familiar with Dneiper and Volga; some parts are even interchangeable.
There are motorcycle-based tours of various areas, often with rental of a Chang Jiang included:
- HC Travel , based in UK, offer Chang Jiang tours to Great Wall, Tibet and Mongolia
- Dragon Bike Tours  Chinese based, offer a Silk Road tour
- Asia Bike Tours , based in India and using Enfields, run a tour into Tibet
Electric scooters are common and cheaper than motorcycles (¥1,500 for a base model, ¥3,500 for the top-of-the-line). While they lack the horsepower and range of a motorcycle, they are quieter, cleaner, lighter, and easier to maintain. Scooters come with a battery (or batteries) that are usually removable as well as rechargeable from a household outlet. At least in some cities, these vehicles are licensed as a bicycle so one does not need a driver's license to ride them and may take advantage of bike lanes and sidewalks (if present) to circumvent traffic. However, like motorcycles, some cities have banned them. The alleged reason is that many motorised bikes are being used in bag snatch crimes. Others suggest it is to make room for people with cars and people movers.
Scooters are a target for thieves, so always ensure that one or, ideally, both wheels, are secured with a solid lock. Batteries as well are liable to be stolen and should be locked to the scooter with the built-in mechanism or stored indoors while not in use. Some residences allow for scooters to be brought indoors overnight, which is preferable.
The bulk of used scooter sales is increasingly conducted over the Internet. Native Chinese who are knowledgeable in such matters should be able to direct you to a good website for your particular city. Be sure to understand what to look for when purchasing a used scooter. Most importantly, a scooter's battery, like all forms of batteries, will lose its ability to hold a charge over time. It is often possible to purchase a new battery to go along with a used bike, however.