Driving in China


Driving in China



Rule of the Road

Traffic in China now drives on the right side of the road, but it wasn't always the case. Being a Buddhist country, traffic in China has traditionally travelled on the left for millennia, and in 1850 China codified the keep-left rule into law. However, in 1946 China changed over to drive on the right, this is believed to have been a communist attempt to suppress Buddhism.



Statistics (year 2007 figures)


UK comparison

Annual fatalities



Registered motor vehicles



Motorisation rate, (motor vehicles / 1,000 population)



Fatality rate, (deaths / 10,000 motor vehicles)



Fatality risk, (road deaths / 100,000 population)



Fatality quotient, (fatality rate x fatality risk)



Fatalities / 1,000 km road



Road length, km



Paved roads, %



Road density, (road length km / land area km2)



Vehicle density, (motor vehicles / km)



Population density, (population / km2)





Statistics Summary

Although China holds the largest single country population, and extends to approx 20 % of the world population, the land area of China also extends across a vast area, thus the population density is only approximately half that of the UK.  But considering that the motorisation rate is quite low, unfortunately the fatality statistics are moderately high. The fatality rate reached a peak in 2002 and is now on a downwards trend.





Driving Environment

China extends 4,000 km from south to north, from a tropical south northwards to a latitude equal to Manchester UK. China also extends more than 5,000 km east to west. Topography varies from the Gobi desert, to the Himalayan plateau, to forested mountains, to coastal plains. Climate varies from arid desert, glaciated mountains, tropical rainforest, with typhoons in coastal regions.



Driver Behaviour.

Drivers here are rapidly evolving from the bicycle to the car. The swarms of bicycles formerly seen on the streets of large cities are being replaced by the traffic jam of the motor age. Drivers seem generally disciplined, and unbothered about the surrounding throng. Fortunately, many major streets in many cities are relatively wide, allowing multiple lanes in each direction.






The vehicle stock is a mixture of a few older vehicles coupled with a large number of modern ones, almost all are smaller engined Japanese and East Asian cars, many are now made in China. Motorcycles are plentiful everywhere, although the bicycle is still plethoric. Handcarts, hand-tractors, and animal drawn carts are still in use everywhere. Trucks typically look quite ancient, However the bus stock is generally quite modern and includes articulated (bendi) buses, and in some locations trolley buses. Trams continue to be used in some cities.



Speed Limits.

Speed is measured in km/h. Signage is in European numbers so is easily readable by all. Speed limits in some areas are reassuringly low, sometimes only 40 km/h in busy areas.





Traffic Signals.

China uses the traditional 4 phase sequence: green > amber > red > red & amber > green. Pelican crossings are also common, with pedestrian push-buttons. Many signals incorporate a specific phase for bicycles.





Road signs.

Regulatory, prohibitory, obligatory, directional, and advice signs all follow the standard ISO (European) system, so most are perfectly readable by all road users.

Strangely, the hazard signs are triangular as the ISO style, but with a black symbol on a yellow background with a black triangular border, i.e. coloured in the US style.

A few specific prohibitory signs display only Chinese characters to assist locally with the meaning, and many advice signs display only Chinese characters.

However, most direction signs are written with Chinese above and English below. All numbers e.g. speed limits, distances, route numbers, hours for which parking is permitted, etc, are in European numbers so easily understood by all.






Road markings.

Both white and yellow are used, white for many conventional markings, but yellow is used to mark some restricted lanes for buses and taxis. Continuous white lines, double continuous white lines, and prohibitive lines are often used in multilane roads in cities to define where changing lane is prohibited. Continuous white lines mark the edge of a cycle lane, the cycle lanes themselves in some locations can be very wide, sometimes wider than the lanes for motor traffic.

Continuous single or double yellow lines mark the centre of a multilane single carriageway road.

Some zebra crossings are very wide, some are preceded by a double give way line where unsignalised, others by a stop line where the zebra crossing is signalised.





Kerb markings.

Kerbs and road edges are not normally painted, although some roads have a yellow boundary line. The bottom 1 metre of tree trunks where trees line the edge of a road are typically painted white to assist with road safety.






Roundabouts are rare in China, although a few do exist. They are typically located only on wide roads where there is little traffic. Use is conventional, but there may not be a give way line on approach.




China has a major network of highways, both within each city and between cities. These are built to good international standards, and typically have a range of high quality grade separated intersections following all the usual styles, including cloverleaf, and others.





Pedestrian Crossings.

Zebra crossings are common in cities. Some zebra crossings are extremely long across some of the wider streets, and without any intermediate islands. However, drivers do normally stop for pedestrians, so expect the driver ahead to do so, even when the pedestrian is some distance to the side. Pelican crossings are becoming common at many junctions.



Railway Crossings.

China has an extensive rail network, and there are many at-grade railway level crossings. Crossings in rural areas can be without any signs or barriers, those in cities typically have manually operated barriers.




There is an extensive and growing network of new roads between and within the cities. These are high quality roads with all the usual facilities. Slow moving vehicles of all types are generally prohibited, and there is typically good segregation to prevent access except at marked junctions.



City Driving.

Roads around the cities are typically busy multilane roads. Lane markings are clear in some places but well worn elsewhere. Traffic signals are the favoured control measure on many streets, but some wide junctions can be totally uncontrolled without signals and without any signs or markings to show priority. Surprisingly, these unmarked, unsigned, uncontrolled junctions work quite well. Most roads incorporate a cycle lane alone each side, sometimes marked with a continuous white line, often separated by a physical barrier. Unfortunately these cycle lanes are also used by other traffic for local access, and often for parking areas.





Rural Roads.

Rural roads vary widely in quality, and vary significantly from the plains to the mountains. Few are tarmac, most are unsurfaced and become deep mud during the monsoon season. Others in the mountains and on the Tibetan Plateau are of compacted gravel. Many rivers are not bridged, beware of crossing unless you are certain the water is passably shallow.





Night Driving.

Night driving is not recommended in China. Only a few main roads in the cities have street lighting, and that can be poor and patchy. This lack of lighting coupled with unlit and slow moving vehicles, from animal drawn carts to unlit motor vehicles poses too many risks. Most rural roads are unsurfaced, it is never wise to drive on unsurfaced roads at night due to the risk of encountering severe surface defects at speed. Also, large animals are common in rural areas, including cattle, camels, yak, deer, bears, leopards, and many others.




Parking is becoming more difficult as motorisation increases. On-street parking is still feasible in many places, certainly in marked bays, but the common principle as bicycle traffic reduces is to park in the cycle lane.






Something to watch out for … on city street corners look for a person holding a white flag with red characters. He may be looking rather bored, but he should be holding up his flag and waving it at passing traffic, because he is undergoing a one day sentence of embarrassment for a traffic offence. His punishment is to stand there for the day so all may see him and may be deterred.


©Keith Lane 2009