Driving in China

update:2009-01-21
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.

However, for the intrepid traveller who wants to drive himself or herself ...
Licences
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 licences and that an IDP can be converted to a local licence, 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. Some people have been asked to take a written test in Chinese. Others get a bilingual test form, or are allowed to bring a translator. Sometimes you can be excused the actual driving test if you have a foreign license, sometimes not. 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.

Note, however, that 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.

Laws
In mainland China the traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road. Various neighbors — Hong Kong, Macau, India, Nepal and Pakistan — drive on the left; beware of the transitions!

The official driving code in the People's Republic of China is the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China . It applies for all vehicles in China, except military vehicles.

There is a supplementary regulation to the Road Traffic Safety Law,  which specifies how specific regulations in the main law are supposed to be carried out.

Speed Limits

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  (radar speed check zone) or (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.

Road Conditions
City Roads
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
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. 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).

Dangers
Chinese traffic does seem to have rules. They generally manage to avoid accidents. However, the rules are quite different from those in other countries. To a foreigner, traffic looks chaotic and many drivers appear insane or suicidal.

Do not assume that Chinese drivers will follow any rule you know.
Right of way
The concept of right-of-way does not apply, or at least is very different here.

Cars do not stop for pedestrians, only swerve around them or honk at them to clear the way. Motorcycles and bicycles often do the same on sidewalks. Wide white bars, which a naive visitor might take for pedestrian crosswalks, are sometimes painted on roads. These have absolutely no effect on car or motorcycle traffic.

Making a left turn in front of oncoming vehicles is quite normal. Those vehicles will not stop. They will just swerve around you, even if this means going across the center line and forcing whatever is behind you to swerve around them.

As near as this befuddled foreigner can tell, the only general rule is Keep moving no matter what. Cutting people off, swerving into the oncoming lane, driving on the shoulder, or the wrong way down a divided highway, are all fine as long as they keep you moving in the right general direction.

As an extreme example, consider the driver making a left turn onto a busy street from a minor one. Elsewhere, there might be a stop sign — not in China. Suppose traffic coming from his left is too heavy to allow the turn. Does he wait for an opening? Not a Chinese driver! He turns left immediately and drives the wrong way down the shoulder until he can move right and merge with traffic going his way.

Indication lights
Few drivers bother with switching on the indication lights when they are changing lanes. Many will not look to see if the lane is clear before changing lanes; cars behind them will swerve or stop to avoid them.
Overtaking on the right
This, despite being illegal, is very common in China.
Lights on!
Lorry drivers may not bother with switching on lights during the night. You should. Switch on your headlamps -- all lights on, in fact, if there is no other vehicle approaching you.
Newbies
Newbies are often marked with the label ʵϰ, but their driving quality varies from acceptable to deplorable. Stay away from them if you can -- they are often overwhelmed by the traffic too!

Motorcycles
The Chinese climate is generally conducive to motorcycle riding, and you see bikes everywhere. However, the traffic is definitely not easy to cope with. 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.

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 RMB ($500 US). A fancier bike with road racer or off-road pretensions would be a bit more, a Chinese brand somewhat less. Many of the Chinese companies build their own chassis but buy engine/transmission assemblies from Suzuki or Honda; these are probably the best value.

Electrically powered scooters are common, cheaper than motorcycles (3500 for top-of-the-line). Recharge the batteries from house current. At least in some cities, these are licensed as a bicycle so you do not need a drivers license to ride one.

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; three on a bicycle or up to five on a motorcycle are sometimes seen. Huge loads — like a cubic meter or more of styrofoam being taken for recycling — are common for both bicycles and motorcycles.

The most interesting bikes in China are Chang Jiang [1]. 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 under 30,000 RMB 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. A vendor that does this type of export is Sidecar Solutions [2] in Beijing. They also rent bikes, organise tours, and help with Chinese drivers licenses.

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 intineraries. You could get service on the bikes in Russia from people familar with Dneiper and Volga; some parts are even interchangable.

There are motorcycle-based tours of various areas, often with rental of a Chang Jiang included:

  • HC Travel [3], based in UK, offer Chang Jiang tours to Great Wall, Tibet and Mongolia
  • Dragon Bike Tours [4] Chinese based, offer a Silk Road tour
  • Asia Bike Tours [5], based in India and using Enfields, run a tour into Tibet
Yinchuan has an annual Motorcycle Tourist Festival [6] in late June.