China Culture Shock #2: Driving in China

Welcome to my latest series: China Culture Shock!

Part of the reason I was interested in moving to China in the first place was to experience a culture completely different from my own. I wanted to experience “culture shock” and challenge myself. I’ve been living in China for almost two years now, and I’m still constantly experiencing things that shock me, or just don’t make sense. Here is a collection of my crazy stories and cultural insights as I explore this mystifying nation.

China Culture Shock: Driving in China

China Culture Shock #2: Driving in China

We all know the stereotypes about Asian drivers, and we’ve heard stories about the crazy traffic in China. I hate to make assumptions about people or cultures, so I always try to avoid doing that in China. Sure, Chinese traffic is crazy and driving is erratic, but it doesn’t mean Chinese people are bad drivers. I just means they’re a little more comfortable with aggressive driving… right?

Studying abroad, my only experience with driving in China was as a passenger in busses and taxis. Both taxi and bus drivers are professionals, so while I was sometimes scared to death, they always seemed to know what they were doing. I just assumed that all drivers in China were similarly aggressive, but under control.

I was wrong. I was very wrong.

Driving in China

Sometimes I do fancy camera things

So…. the stereotypes are kind of true. 

Last year I worked in a high school on the outskirts of Ningbo. My school often threw banquets and buffets off campus, and many teachers also invited me to their houses for dinner. I didn’t have a car, so I was usually driven by one of the other teachers. While some teachers were “okay” drivers by American standards, others made me fear for my life.

About 2/3 of the people who drive me in China seem nervous and uncomfortable whilst driving. I honestly feel like I’m being driven by a 15-year-old on a learners permit. I’ve even offered to help back the car around corners or into a parking space, because the driver is uncomfortable going backwards.

One time a few teachers and I were driving home from a banquet at night. I noticed we were going extremely slow on the highway road, probably about 10 mph under the speed limit. I felt a little uncomfortable because the street wasn’t lit very well, and I was afraid someone was going to rear-end us. About 10 minutes into the drive home, the teacher realized she had forgotten to turn on the headlights. So, not only were we going way under the speed limit, we also didn’t have our lights on. Whoopsies!

Also, babies are allowed to just climb around the backseat of a car

No car seats here, that’s what mom is for!

Just this last weekend I went to a barbecue with my new colleges at the English academy I teach at on Wednesdays. We dropped my classmate and colleague, Plum, off to buy a cake for the barbecue (it was someone’s birthday), and then spent a solid 10 minutes trying to put the car in a safe place to wait for her. We drove down the street and made a U-turn in front of oncoming traffic. When the driver realized that there were multiple cars coming in her direction, she screamed and let go of the wheel. 

After our “incident”, a male colleague decided to try his hand at driving. Driving with him was like driving with my younger brother just after he got his license. Fast, jerky, and overly-confident would be the three words I would use to describe this kind of male teenage driving. The only difference? This man was not sixteen, he was twenty-eight.

Driving in China

Be sure to cover your arms while driving so they don’t get tan!

Don’t believe me?

Last year on of my English teacher friends taught a lesson on stereotypes to his students. He listed some common stereotypes Americans have about Chinese people. His list contained: extremely smart, good at math, kung fu ninjas, quiet and shy, and bad drivers. The students thought the lesson was hilarious and unanimously agreed that the only true stereotype was the one about horrible driving.

Even the Chinese know they’re bad drivers!

Why is the driving so bad?

In America, teenagers have a reputation for being bad drivers. But once the teenagers age and gain some experience, they morph into calm, safe drivers. Why isn’t this the same for Chinese people? A lot of the Chinese people I know with cars drive almost every day. Shouldn’t they be good drivers?

The only thing I can think of is that the Chinese DMV puts much more emphasis on the written potion of the driving test. The written test is extremely hard and many people fail multiple times. The skills portion is much more subjective, which Chinese people tend to avoid. You see the same thing with testing in schools. Rather than give oral presentations or actually learn how to speak oral English, the Chinese education system focuses on written tests. Because of this, many Chinese students learn English for 10 years, but can’t confidently speak one sentence after they graduate.

Driving in China

My e-bike getting a flat tire fixed

Driving an E-bike

For those of you who didn’t know, I owned an e-bike, or electric motorbike, last year. If you think driving in a car is scary, try riding on an e-bike with no protection other than a shoddy helmet.

I think I’ve only ever honked my horn a total of four times in America. At home, I only honk in an emergency, or if I really need to merge on the freeway and someone isn’t paying attention. In China, I probably honk four times a minute. 

Why do I have to honk that much? Because people don’t look. It’s horrible!! People change lanes without looking, make abrupt turns in front of you with no blinker, or stop in the middle of the road with no warning. The pedestrians are just as bad! They run out into the middle of the road without even looking to see if anyone is coming!! Any time I pass a person, car or another e-bike, I have to honk, just so they know I’m there. Otherwise I might get into an accident if someone isn’t paying attention. Oh wait, THAT ALREADY HAPPENED.

How do you handle cars or cows going the wrong way down the road? Honk. Loudly.

How do you handle cars or cows going the wrong way down the road? Honk. Loudly.

Horrible Traffic Laws

Traffic laws in China are basically nonexistent. People stop in the middle of the street with no warning, block intersections, drive on the sidewalk, perform dangerous u-turns and drive down the wrong side of the road towards oncoming traffic. E-bikes constantly run red lights, and have the audacity to honk at pedestrians that are crossing legally. Really? Really?! YOU HAVE A RED LIGHT.

Don’t get me wrong, there are traffic laws. There are traffic lights. There are lane lines. There are sidewalks. There are special e-bike lanes, and there are crosswalks. They exist. But no one cares. The cars don’t care, the e-bikes don’t care and the pedestrians don’t care.

Why? Because the traffic fines are too low. The maximum fine you can get for a traffic violation is 60 RMB, or $10 USD. TEN DOLLARS???! While 60 RMB is worth a little more in China than it is in the USA, it’s still way too low. In America, just a speeding ticket can cost you a few hundred dollars. Park illegally? You better be able to pay to get your car back from impound. Drive the wrong way down the road? Reckless driving? Illegal U-turns? Yeah, that’ll cost you. Imagine if the maximum traffic fine in  the USA was $60 USD? The roads would be a mess!

Driving in China

That’ll be a 60 RMB fine for driving without a license, miss.

China could easily solve all of its traffic problems by just raising the cost of the fines so that they are prohibitively expensive. Other countries have done it. In Vietnam, it’s illegal to ride a motorbike without a helmet. The cost is high enough that no one dares ride without one. Granted, most Vietnamese buy very light-weight helmets that probably won’t save you in an accident… but at least they’re wearing something?

I just don’t get it. Traffic fines can be a major source of revenue for the state. Why not use them? The only reason I can come up with is to keep the traffic police from giving out unnecessary fines to pocket money. Maybe 60 RMB isn’t worth their time? Something tells me this isn’t the case though. 60 RMB can buy a nice dinner for two in China.

Driving in China

You are never safe. Not even on the sidewalk

What do you think? Why is the traffic in China so horrible??! I’ve been living here for almost two years and I still can’t figure it out! 



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

22 comments on “China Culture Shock #2: Driving in China

  1. I also think that the laughable fines have definitely something to do with it… It is just 50 RMB for parking on forbidden places, so everybody parks there because the risk of getting a ticket is low, and the price is also low, so…

    Chinese people say that 中国人不怕死, maybe that also influences their awful driving… hahaha.

  2. Maybe the small fine has to do with the fear of corruption taking place amongst the traffic police. If the fine was big enough to actually hurt people’s wallets, the people could be tempted to bribe the police to get out of the fine, and the police would then learn to take advantage of it. 60 rmb is just not worth the bother.

    I think the reason why Chinese people don’t follow the traffic rules might be much the same as the reason why they push and shove instead of forming orderly queues: in a country of 1.3 billion people and limited resources, stopping and waiting for any reason could result in the person missing out. That’s what I’ve heard given as an explanation.

    Hopefully things will improve as the country continues with its development. Do you get the sense that the driving is better in more advanced cities like Shanghai and Beijing?

    • I actually don’t think it’s any better in Beijing or Shanghai! I’ve almost gotten in a serious accident in both of those cities as a taxi passenger. I think it’s actually worse because there are more cars. One time my taxi driver in Beijing drove on the sidewalk to bypass a long line of cars!

  3. I’ve heard they just introduced fines for wrong parking in Shenzhen that will cost you a minimum of 500 Yuan. Last year before Chinese New Year, police were controlling much more than usually. My husband said that’s what they always do because they are ordered to (probably so the police can afford the 红包s they give their employees for Chinese New Year). When we went to the airport in Shenzhen, there was traffic police telling us that we’re heading in the wrong direction (the airport just moved somewhere close-by). The police officer then told us that we won’t make it in time if we don’t get into a car with another driver (who we could pay a few Kuai, according to him). Talking about corruption and stuff.

    • Jeez! Yeah corruption is a big issue that prevents accurate traffic law. I guess they would have to make the police’s salary high enough that they wouldn’t be temped to take bribes for fear of losing their job? I have no idea where to even start!

    • If it makes you feel any better, I’ve never gotten in a serious accident other than the time I wiped out on my ebike. This was partially due to someone running out in front of me, but it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t raining and there wasn’t mud from construction on the roads. The drivers are scary, but it’s nothing compared to other countries I’ve been to like Egypt!

  4. I agree about the fines, plus the health and safety culture here hasn’t developed the point where we are currently in the West. Just wait until a family member of the ruling elite or the rich gets seriously hurt, and things will start to change!

    • Yeah I’d be interested to see how things change over the next few years. Especially since China wants to promote tourism. China has already changed so much in the last few years! When I first studied abroad there was no soap or toilet paper in any public bathrooms, now almost all restaurants, malls and bars have both!

  5. As funny as some of the things you mentioned here, some of it is appalling! I would be genuinely FRIGHTENED to be on Chinese roads with the way you’ve explained what goes down there!

    • I agree it is pretty bad, but people do actually follow the general rules for the most part. You just have to be a little extra vigilant all the time. When I’m walking in a place that e-bikes can drive (even on campus), I always look behind me before I stop walking in a straight line. I always look for e-bikes when I cross the road and I ride my e-bike below the speed limit. I’ve been pretty safe so far!

  6. I am not actually shocked with this information, given that I come from India. But I do understand the plight of someone who is coming from a country that has proper driving / road rules, its difficult to fathom these info. I am sure an increase in fine will bring these chaos to a reduced numbers.

    • I agree, there’s crazy traffic in a lot of parts of the world. I just find it interesting that countries like Vietnam which are considered “less developed” than most of China, can implement driving rules that people follow, whereas China has been unable to do so.

    • Hahaha! Cab drivers seem to know what they’re doing. I’ve only almost gotten in a serious accident twice. Ebikes are a bit more dangerous, so I wouldn’t recommend them unless you’re going somewhere locally. Unfortunately, for me it was the only way to get around my area. I usually just take the bus now that I’m in the city.

  7. I had no idea Chinese people were bad drivers. I was born in the Dominican Republic and we have a saying “if you learn how to drive in the DR you can drive anywhere” its pure chaos. I had a culture shock in the States when my friend was driving me to work in Maryland and she stopped in every stop sign, I was like “do you actually need to stop in all of them?”

    • Hahaha it’s true. I stop at stop signs in my neighborhood even if no one is there. It’s habit! Plus our fines are so high it’s best just to follow the rules. I would be fine if the traffic was just chaos in China, but the problem is that the drivers themselves aren’t confident. That’s what scares me!

  8. The reasons discussed were low fines and a desire by the authorities to avoid the temptation of corruption. What about regionalism. I’ve lived in Fuzhou where I’ve seem zero traffic accidents in one year and on the other hand Chengdu where it is unusual NOT to see some kind of a traffic accident every few days (even when you aren’t actually looking for one). Hint: Shenzhen is inhabited by many people who are connected to Hong Kong…a city with comparably good driving habits. Just a thought.

    • That’s definitely a possibility. I’ve lived in Beijing, Xi’an and Ningbo, and the driving is pretty bad in all of these places, but I would venture to say Beijing is the worst. This is possibly due to the aggression most people have while driving in Beijing. The traffic is so bad people drive dangerously because they’re frustrated!

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