Driving in China

I’ve traveled quite extensively in my life and I’ve driven in many countries throughout the world, including Asia, Korea to be exact, courtesy of an all-expense paid one year trip given to me by the Air Force. I can honestly say that driving in these locations had their local challenges, but probably wasn’t any more difficult than driving in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York. China, however, is different. I unequivocally feel that any foreigner who wants to get behind the wheel in China should first get a psychiatric evaluation prior to going to the Hertz counter.

In the over ten years I and my partner Dave Dodge have worked with China Companies, I’ve seen cars drive on a pedestrian sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to the side, because the road was too congested and the sidewalk was clear. I observed this feat performed by a company’s driver whose Chinese name was Wang Wei (pronounced Wong Way), and who we referred to as Wrong Way. I’ve also been in the car when the driver decided to drive the wrong way on a one-way street, because it was shorter than going the correct way and having to travel around a large city block, as well as weave through traffic with a speed and agility that would make Lindsey Vonn proud.

Military and government vehicles, as well as police and fire departments, are allowed to run red lights, go the wrong way on one-way streets, and weave through traffic. In other words, pretty much drive the same as every other driver in China.

According to MSN Money, Part of the reason for this type of driving behavior is that driving private vehicles in China is relatively new. In fact, the Chinese government didn’t encourage the ownership of private cars until 1994. Once they did, private ownership increased quickly. By 2009 China became the world’s largest new-car market and, by 2040, the International Bodyshop Industry Symposium (IBIS) forecasts that there will be 450 million vehicles in China. With so many new vehicles, IBIS members are excited. New drivers generally mean more accidents. However, in China, that presumption may be inaccurate as, according to a 2011 report issued by IBIS, between 60% and 90% of Chinese vehicles are involved in a collision each year. Liability insurance is mandatory in China and there’s intensive competition for car owners with insurance companies allowed to offer steep discounts in order to try and entice drivers to switch insurance companies.

Even though private ownership of cars was allowed in 1994, they were still too expensive for most people. In addition, according to the publication, Seeing Red in China, driving a car as recently as 2000 made one appear to be one of the elite. This privileged image had remained in the Chinese psyche and owning a car is considered a status symbol. In fact, car ownership is almost obligatory for anyone who considers themselves affluent and part of the middle class. The desire to increase one’s stature and image has led to a surge in new car sales. It’s estimated, for example, that 10% of Beijing’s drivers are new drivers.

Driving in China is dangerous. One of the contributing factors to this is China’s infrastructure. Its roads were not constructed or designed to handle the current volume of traffic. In many places in Beijing, for example, cars will take an off ramp from a major highway while another car is merging onto the same highway. Both cars slow to a crawl to make this happen, resulting in congestion. Along with inadequately designed roads and less experienced drivers, another factor contributing to China’s dangerous driving conditions is that driving laws are simply not enforced. Even though I regularly read in the paper that China is starting to crack down on bad drivers and has stepped up enforcement, don’t believe it. If it happens at all it’s probably temporary. Bad drivers are simply not high on their priority list.

In the West we follow driving laws because we can get a ticket if we don’t. There’s nothing altruistic in our behavior. We don’t want to go through the hassle of pulling over, paying the fine, and getting the points. The Chinese don’t have to pay much attention in these areas. Because traffic laws are primarily enforced through the use of traffic cameras, they seem to follow the traffic rules only within range of the cameras. They know where the cameras are and are very good at obeying traffic laws within their view. Outside of the camera’s view, I’ve been in cars that have passed and cut in front of police cars, and committed other traffic violations that would get you or I a free ride to the police station in most states. In China, however, they seem to rely on camera systems to enforce the law over conventional police enforcement.

According to the Irish Times, 70,000 people die, on average, per year in China from traffic accidents, 800 of those from drivers running red lights, with 300,000 more injured in road collisions and incidents. Many believe that the number reported is substantially below the actual numbers.

China does not recognize an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) in mainland China as China is not a part of the convention that created IDPs. In order to drive in China you need a Chinese license to drive. Even a Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan license will not suffice. However, you can get a provisional driver’s license without taking any tests. You can obtain these licenses in major cities like Beijing by going to counters at the Beijing Capital Airport or similar rental locations.

An electric scooter in China is treated the same as a bicycle and no driver’s license is required to ride it. However, some cities ban the use of electric bicycles and restrict where you can ride them, such as not on main traffic lanes.

Alan Refkin

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