Driving in China: Defying Death as a Foreigner

February 18 | 21 Comments

For anybody who has visited China, it probably seems ridiculous to think that anything good could come from the chaotic Chinese traffic. But I can honestly say that thanks to my time driving in China, I’ve become a better driver. Here’s a brief explanation of how.

How I learned to drive better while driving in China

Recently, I received the one official Chinese document that has proved to be more difficult than any visa I have ever applied for:

…my Chinese driver’s license.

The process of getting a Chinese driver’s license was confusing to say the least, and it makes me even more proud to show it to you here:

My Chinese Drivers License

Understandably, my family and friends were concerned about me driving in China.

Roads all throughout Asia – from China to Thailand to India – have a reputation for being dangerous. And that’s not just anecdotal stories.

In 2006, the number of fatal deaths on Chinese roads was double that of the United States, despite the fact that the U.S. reportedly had four times as many licensed cars.

Safety as a licensed driver in China is an issue, for sure.

However, although logic seems to deny this fact, I firmly believe that China has made me a better driver.

Defensive Driving in China (i.e. “Don’t Die!”)

To the first time visitor or expat (a foreigner living in China), Chinese traffic seems like chaos. The last thing any of even dream of doing is renting a car in China to drive ourselves.

Cars are weaving in and out of lanes, darting from hidden side streets and honking their horns…

…all without the use of that nifty little feature called a turn signal.

Escape from the vehicle is impossible because most cars are never more than 4 inches apart, just wide enough to fit the mirrors.

Driving in China is like traffic in Los Angeles during rush hours; but it’s all the time on even the smallest of roads.

Driving in China on the roads full of traffic

In China, defensive driving isn’t just an idea that is taught during driving school (during which most of us just fall asleep…am I right?)

No…

Defensive driving in China is a way of life.

Rules of the China Road (Yes, They Exist)

Sometime within the first year of living in China, after riding in enough taxis and observing other drivers around me, it occurred to me.

Maybe there are rules on these roads.

A Chinese policeman directs traffic

I just didn’t see it before. It’s like one of those Picasso paintings that you have to stare at for a while before you start to see the method behind the madness.

While these rules may not necessarily reflect the law of the land, there is an order amid the chaos.

You see, in China and throughout much of Asia, a driver has to be constantly aware of his surroundings and operates under one very simple but important assumption:

Nobody else is going to follow the rules.

In many western cultures, the opposite is true. We tend to be very focused on our own driving and what is happening straight ahead of us. We operate under a different assumption:

Everybody else will follow the rules.

It is for this reason that many Americans have to take a Defensive Driving course.  It’s because we suck at it.

Let’s take the following real-life examples and look at them through the lens of these two opposing assumptions.

  • A driver runs a red light and almost hits me. In China I assume every car that pulls up to a crossing will likely pull out in front of me and I plan accordingly.  In the US, it’s appalling to think that anybody would break the rules and therefore no attention is paid to any cars at a crossing.
  • A car merges into my lane without signaling. In China, lanes are not private property and there is no such thing as “personal space” even on the roads. Such an intrusion is expected at all times. In America, we feel that we own our lane and such a person has invaded private property. Therefore we are compelled to return the favor with a honk and a finger.
  • An elderly man crosses the road at a turtle’s pace. In China, I fear hitting pedestrians more than cars. Looking both ways before you cross road is a relatively new concept in China, so I’m constantly on the lookout for brave pedestrians. In America, we assume everyone will use a crosswalk and even name-shame those who don’t: jaywalkers. What reckless people.

In each of these cases, the same event causes different driver reactions because of the unwritten rules of the road.

Cross-Cultural Driving: A Theory

Now that I have a few years of driving in Asia under my belt (I have both car and motorcycle licenses in China and in Thailand), I’ve come up with a theory about cross-cultural drivers.

My theory boils down to three parts:

  1. Chinese drivers in the western world are a danger to society. They drive like they would in China and expect/assume other drivers will drive defensively. We don’t, of course, so this erratic driving freaks out everybody on the road.
  2. Western drivers in the Chinese world are a danger to society. Since we don’t drive as defensively as Chinese drivers do, we tend to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of cars and the brazenness of the drivers around us.
  3. Those who have driven in another culture and returned to their own make the best drivers.

In other words, the best driver is a fusion of one who unquestionably follows the rules (a la the American mentality), while assuming others won’t do the same (a la the Chinese mentality).

I can’t prove this, of course, but since I fall into category three (the one which makes me look good)…

I’m going to stick with this theory for now. :)

Me and my son in our rented Toyota Camry

p.s. I also got a speeding ticket in China, and that’s an interesting story in itself.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. I learned to drive in the states (I’m a pretty good driver I think :D) and I’m scared to death to drive anywhere in China.
    As for traffic rules, most drivers in major cities do follow things like traffic signals and speed limits completely (or face a fine in the thousands of rmb). What’s lacking is the sense of right-of-way. Basically, it’s there empty space ahead, it is a free-for-all. Who cares if you’re a bus, car, bike, overloaded tricycle, or pedestrian. The problem here is that the bigger thing usually wins.

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  2. WOW. i’d be scared!!

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    Josh on April 13th, 2010 at 12:19 am

    Don’t get my wrong, I was scared too for the first month of driving! It would have been worse if I had started out driving my first year in China, though.

    I actually had about 3 years of “living in China” experience before attempting to get a license. I think that made all the difference in the world because I already had a feel for the roads (i.e. they didn’t seem so chaotic).

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  3. You article pretty much sums up what I have been telling people for years.. if anything, China has made me a better driver..

    When I return home (Australia) I have to constantly remind myself to stay in my lane, and drive the correct way around the roundabout..

    In 250,000km driving in China I have only touched another car once..

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    Josh on April 12th, 2010 at 11:41 am

    250,000!! You’re nuts, my friend. :) I’d love to hear about all the places you drove to, though.

    For me the hardest part in coming back to the States was turning on my blinker. Oftentimes it feels so unnecessary!

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  4. my friend compared Chinese traffic to a flock of birds, or a shoal of fish, in that their movement seems completely improbable and yet due to some sort of magnetism in their blood they can get where they’re going without mauling each other… most of the time…

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    Josh on April 13th, 2010 at 5:37 am

    That seems like a pretty good analogy :)

    To me it’s kind of like those futuristic sci-fi movies that show traffic patterns seamlessly merging and separating without a change in speed. The only difference is that in those movies it’s supposed to be computers controlling the vehicles. In China, it’s people.

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  5. So your Chinese name now is 加什?

    I think this is the same conclusion if you are driving in any Asian city. Hehe.

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  6. Josh, great post. Boy do I identify with this. I have not gotten a Chinese drivers license but have more than a totally theoretical understanding of what you are talking about. There is a metaphor here about rules in China and how they are highly situational and power-based (i.e. how fast and how much mass do you have, and how much you don’t care about your life!)

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    Josh on April 13th, 2010 at 3:23 am

    Thanks, Elliot! Believe it or not I was actually never really afraid of being pulled over by the cops because I always had the phone number handy of a friend/former student who was a mid-level police officer. One call and I would be off the hook (never used it though :)

    That’s so true about the rules being situational and power-based. It all depends on who you are, who you know, or where you are.

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  7. “In 2006 the number of fatal deaths on Chinese roads was double that of the United States, despite the fact that the U.S. reportedly had four times as many licensed cars.”

    -yeah, and also despite the fact that U.S. has a population of what 1/4 of China does, and you rarely even see anybody on a street except big cities like Chicago…. Sry, just my stats nerves are working on me…..

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    Josh on April 14th, 2010 at 6:18 am

    No need to apologize! I would actually be interested to see the statistics about how many China deaths involve pedestrians. I wasn’t kidding when I said that they were the ones I fear hitting the most. They just run out into the street and expect the cars to avoid them!!

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  8. Josh, et al,

    Next week (finger’s crossed) my company’s tri-lingual China driving license test prep app is coming to the iPhone. Full version has 1300 questions. And the English version is complete with bad English. :)

    100K miles driving for me… I guy on a bike ran into me then blamed me… so far so lucky.

    email me if you want a link dvd at thinknao dot com.

    David

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  9. These are great traffic stories. I have always wondered how anyone learns to drive in China. I guess you just start the car and get in it!
    Once a taxi in Shenzhen, stopped on the expressway to allow me to get out and get another cab in the lane next to us that was in the proper zone. I was afraid to get out of the car and run to the next one! It is a madhouse, but I have only seen two accidents since 1991. You are a brave man.

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    Josh Summers on September 10th, 2014 at 4:19 am

    Haha! That’s hilarious, Sally. I’ve had a few stories like that as well. The good news is that we’ll have great stuff to share with our grandkids when we get old (and of course they probably won’t believe us).

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  10. You are so courageous! I’m a Chinese who is now American. I learned how to drive in the US and every time I went back to China, I was terrified by how Chinese drive on the road. I have never been bold enough to drive a car in China. I enjoy reading your blogs, and it seems that you’re enjoying the adventure!

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    Josh Summers on September 10th, 2014 at 4:18 am

    Thank you, Chen Yao! I don’t know if I would ever drive a car in Beijing or Shanghai, but Urumqi has been ok. I’ve found that finding a parking spot is so much harder than driving :)

    Glad you enjoy reading! I appreciate your kind words.

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  11. Josh, I’m from India and I like reading about China, our biggest neighbour. I’ve just started reading your blog and your writing style has already made it one of my favourite Chinese blogs!

    About driving in China, I have one thing to say. Driving in India is just like China, only with narrower and not-as-well-kept roads and pavements. In India, you have to share even big roads(that are 100 feet across) with pedestrians and animals. I bet its much tougher to drive here than in China, and I say this with a touch of sadness :)

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    Josh Summers on September 24th, 2014 at 12:51 am

    I’m sure you’re right, Sriram! It’s difficult enough driving here in China, I can’t imagine what it’s like in India. Thanks for the comment ;)

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