“Ugh my head is killing me” she said. Class had just been dismissed when my classmate suddenly shared what was ailing her. “Must have been a crazy night”, I said laughing. “I wish”, she replied “I was riding my bike when some woman on a scooter ran a red light and our heads smacked together.” It was at that moment I realized expats needed some pointers before getting on the road in China.
My eyes grew wide and I stared at her, not quite sure how to respond. Not only was I concerned for Jane’s well-being (especially with all of us being so far from home) but I was also concerned how angry Jane was that people on the road didn’t follow regulations like in her country. She may have had some preconceived notions that were making her life in China less than ideal. Jane had assumed, “green light, I have the right of way, time to go.” She was right, she did have the right of way. What she didn’t realize was that having the right of way didn’t help her in anyway shape or form after the collision. Her language inability coupled with complete lack of familiarity with local customs left her helpless and concussive. If you are in China or you are coming to China and you plan to ride a Bicycle, an electric scooter, a motorbike etc. this guide is for you. The better you understand traffic behavior in China the better you can protect yourself.
On paper, traffic regulations in China probably aren’t so different from your own country. What is different however is how few of these rules are actually enforced. Let’s take a look at traffic behavior in China which is only partially influenced by traffic regulations.
What to Know Before You Commute in China
Accidents: Technically all accidents should be reported to the police. In reality if there is a small collision with little to no bodily harm the two parties will often settle the dispute on the spot with a cash settlement. There is an understanding that when accidents do occur the larger type of vehicle is always at fault. For instance, if a car hits a motorcycle the car is at fault. If a motorcycle hits a bicycle the driver of the motorcycle is at fault; if a bicycle hits a pedestrian the bicycle is at fault. Pedestrians in China bravely charge into intersections because they know that when push comes to shove the cars will have to yield. Of course there are some exceptions to such a generic rule. A student in Beijing was driving his electric scooter down the wrong side of the road when he clipped an oncoming car; he was forced to pay 70 percent of the damages. Concerns of discrimination against foreigners in these situations do exist. Please note that fleeing from the scene of an accident is one of the most harshly punished traffic related offenses in China.
Compensation: If you’re an expat and you are involved in an accident with a vehicle of equal size (i.e. you are both driving a scooter or a bicycle) the chances of you obtaining compensation are quite low. Compensation may be possible if you’re willing to argue and you want to practice your Chinese, but you may create a spectacle which could result in a mob forming around you. If you feel like you are being taken advantage of your best option would be to call the police (110) who can help settle the matter relatively objectively. See how an expat in Shanghai dealt with the settlement process after he crashed his bicycle into a pedestrian at echinacities.
Personal Note: The author of the above article hit an elderly lady stepping off a bus. It is highly recommended you avoid passing buses on the right, you never know when someone will step out of the bus or come running into the street to catch the bus; cautiously pass the bus on the left instead.
Right of Way: There is a general consensus that the object in the way has the right of way. If you’re driving 60 miles per hour （about 96 KPH） and a car cuts you off going 20 MPH (about 32 KPH) it’s your responsibility to avoid the collision. In other words, be prepared to be cut off regularly. While making a right hand turn motorists will largely disregard traffic coming from their left. The car making the turn is already in the way, so it is up to the vehicle coming from behind to yield.
Left Hand Turns: If motorists making right hand turns slow down the flow of traffic, motorists making left hand turns bring traffic to a complete halt. When the traffic light turns green, cars often lurch forward into the middle of the intersection to block oncoming traffic so that they can make the left before oncoming traffic enters the intersection. The cars following then tail the first car so that none of the oncoming traffic can proceed (See image below).
The result is that even though an individual may have a green light they will not be able to proceed forward because of opposite traffic making left hand turns. (See the funny description of the chaos a left hand turn can cause here http://soimgoingtochina.blogspot.hk/2007/06/beijing-traffic-lesson-left-turn.html)
Right Hand Turns: When making a right hand turn in China vehicles do not have to stop at the light. With this said motorists and cyclists should be extra careful of oncoming traffic coming from the road they are turning onto. The good news is the bikes and scooters driving opposite the flow of traffic usually stick to the far left or right sides of the road so by making a wider turn you ensure that both parties have space to avoid a collision (See image below).
Registration: In Beijing electric scooters are technically considered bicycles, therefore no license is required to drive them. Registration, however, is required and can be done at the same police station you register your visa and residency at; it will cost you 10 RMB. Many Beijingers have yet to register (especially students) and this is due to the fact that there is very little risk of receiving a fine or having an electric scooter seized in Beijing. A fine or seizer in Shanghai is quite likely. For more information regarding registration information in Beijing see this article from The Beijinger. For Shanghai check out TimeOut Shanghai.
Still looking for more information about traffic behavior in China? Check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rules_of_the_road_in_China