Road Conditions in China
The physical condition of roads and road maintenance varies greatly from municipality to municipality with the Western provinces being poorer than the east-coast and the Guangzhou region. As the building and maintenance of roads are mostly funded by local government, you may notice a sharp change when crossing provincial borders. Places with decent economy have superb infrastructure.
When possible, drive near the middle-right of the road as drain covers are usually stolen. The side of the road could be a mixture of pedestrian, bicycles and tricycles, animals, drain well without covers, and sometimes farmers use part of the road to dry the grains.
Turning off of main roads may require technical off-road driving skills and equipment, and at some places it is illegal.
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. There are crowds of pedestrians to contend with. Bicycles swarm everywhere even in the dark. In recent years, the electric scooter/bike has become quite popular. Economic prosperity has made it affordable for many Chinese to own cars and the number of cars on the road has increased dramatically. In many areas, there are also lots of motorcycles. Three wheeled carts powered by motorcycle engines are also common. In the smaller cities, anything from tractors to bullock carts may turn up!
China National Highways
Some National and Provincial Highways are toll roads, despite not expressways. Also note some National Highways are rebuilt to expressway standards, and tolled. Their only difference from National Expressways are red GXXX (e.g. G102 in Beijing) signs instead of green GX/GXX/GXXXX for National Expressways.
G-level (national-Red Sign) China National Highways are those linking medium-sized cities, usually a pleasure to drive on. The speed limit is 80 km/h (50 mph), but cars sometimes zip at speeds over 100 km/h (62 mph), thanks to the relative absence of speed detection cameras compared to National Expressways. However, many of them are decades old, and due to heavy travel by overweight trucks, have poorer condition, and local government may have ongoing reconstruction of them.
S-level (provincial-Yellow Sign) highways connects counties, and 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. However, due to city expansion/some metropolitan area forming, some S-level roads are new, wide roads better than National Highways.
X-level (county-White Sign, although rarely displayed) highways are those linking townships. 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.
National Expressways are China’s equivalent of Interstate, a massive network similar to National Highways. Unlike US, few National Highways are absorbed by it (e.g. G312 between Hefei and Nanjing), so there are two full-fledged networks, with Expressways much better but have tighter restriction on vehicles. Almost ALL Expressways are tolled (there are also Provincial Expressways, not much different, and a new National expressway may be formed out of several provincial expressways just by changing planning and signs)
National Expressways are marked by G and 1, 2 or 4 digits, Provincial with S instead.
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. However, when one does occur expect to wait several hours or in rare cases even days for the traffic to clear as damaged cars or trucks or usually not taken off the roadway after the accident resulting in kilometer upon kilometer of jammed roadways. Furthermore, this will result in drivers jockeying for position and jamming the emergency shoulder adding further waiting time to the traffic jam and potentially more accidents. Traffic jams once exceeded 100km on G6 (reconstruction and closure occurred on parallel G110 National Highway, affecting travel between Beijing, Zhangjiakou and Inner Mongolia, with no other option other than G6 at that time), making worldwide news.
Although in English, both express routes and expressways are referred to as “expressways”, their Chinese counterparts are named differently. “Express routes” are written 快速公路, whereas expressways are written as 高速公路. The idea is that express routes operate within a metropolitan area, but expressways do the national work, liaising from one centre to another. However, the difference is now not clear, with expressways sometimes have a speed limit of 110 or 100 instead of standard 120. City-road like express routes are also being called expressways, such as Tongzhou-Yanjiao Expressway in Beijing, and Airport Expressway in many cities.
Expressway can function as a city road in very large cities, the most notorious is Badaling Expressway (now part of G6), connecting central Beijing, Changping and Yanqing. It’s one of the most crowded roads in Beijing, and by no means “express” during rush hours.
Do not believe the name of a Expressway. The destination in the name may be unreachable, since construction on different portions may not be synchronous. HanCai(HanYang-Caidian S15 Hubei) Expressway connects HanYang with western cities in Hubei, but once did not have a exit on Caidian in the middle, resulting confused drivers having to detour. G4(Beijing-Hong Kong) would not lead you directly to Hong Kong but terminates at Shenzhen city centre, near a checkpoint. JingTai Expressway (G3)…the “Tai” indeed refers to Taiwan, with a imaginary tunnel under Taiwan Strait (it connects Beijing to Fuzhou anyway, and was once simply called JingFu Expressway, but even by this account, Jian’Ou-Fuzhou portion is still incomplete. However, the network is dense and it’s straightforward to use G25 and G70 to cover it)
Chinese traffic is distinctly dangerous for vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. Road accidents in China are common and often fatal.
According to Chinese statistics , China has about 100,000 traffic deaths a year, more than twice the number in United States even though the US has more than four times as many cars , . According to the World Health Organisation  “In China, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people between 15 and 45” and the annual Chinese traffic death toll is near 250,000 .
To a newcomer, Chinese traffic appears to have no rules or, if there are rules, it appears they are neither followed nor enforced. In reality, of course, there are rules; they do generally manage to avoid hitting each other. However, Chinese rules are very different from what most travellers are used to. To Western eyes, appallingly bad driving is the norm, and insane or suicidal behaviour behind the wheel is fairly common.
Do not assume that Chinese drivers will follow any rule you know.
Foreign drivers must try to adapt to this (or, perhaps more sensibly, give up and take taxis or hire a driver). You do not have to learn to drive like a Chinese, but at least you should not be surprised when they do. There is absolutely no point getting angry if someone cuts you off or drives against the red light or on the wrong side of the road. You simply yield and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Every car/driver has a “body language” which predicts what they will do next. It is essential to learn this “body language” and drive by it. If you are driving down a four lane road, and the lane in front of the taxi to the right of you and slightly ahead of you is blocked, the lane ahead is free, you should immediately assume the taxi will move left into your lane without any warning. This sort of thinking ahead, or defensive driving, can help you avoid many problems but of course you cannot predict everything that may happen.
Another way to look at it is that there are only two rules you must obey, both equally important. Don’t hit anything, and don’t get hit by anything.
Despite all the above, many foreigners do drive in China and, after adapting, some feel reasonably comfortable and confident about it.
The Mindset of a Chinese driver
Another point to understand driving in China is that there are lots of people and that affects how they interact with each other. For example, when buying tickets, instead of lining up in an orderly queue, they crowd around and push their way in. In Canada, if this happened, a fight would start. In China, they just go about their business. On the road you see similar behaviour; everybody jostling to get ahead. However, you seldom see behaviours such as road rage like in Australia. (This is not completely true. It depends on which province. In Liaoning you will often encounter fist fights during disturbances. This will happen not only between men but also women. And you do not have to be part of the “accident” to participate. Anyone in the generally incensed crowd can participate.)
In the UK, you can often get away with certain things, such as parking on pavements, and waiting in no-parking areas, as enforcement of traffic rules for some laws is lax and for expediency, drivers bend the rules in some places. If you choose to break the rules, you use your own judgement when doing so. The same thing applies when driving in China. Since a number of traffic violations are not strictly enforced.
With all the chaos on the road, Chinese drivers tend to be more liberal with the horn. Driving is a noisy affair. They use their horn to bring awareness to other drivers and to remind other drivers they are there. Large vehicles such as trucks and buses have loud air horns and will blare them when overtaking vehicles. In western countries, a horn is used when immediate danger is sensed. It is considered rude to honk the horn, but Chinese drivers do it constantly to communicate with others. The Chinese written driving test even recommends using the horn or flashing lights in addition to indicator lights when overtaking.
Right of way
The concept of right-of-way is quite different in China than in many other countries. “First is Right,” or less succinctly, any vehicle with a slight position lead or access to a gap before another vehicle has de-facto right of way to enter that gap. This essentially allows for any driver the habit of cutting right out into the traffic flow forcing the opposing vehicle to either stop or crash. This rule applies to lane changes too that can come at anytime from any angle. Be alert to brake at any moment! If you do not force your way in, you will not ever be allowed to enter the flow of traffic at busy sections.
Merging: vehicles depart from intersections, side streets, alleys and parking lots, merging onto any road without yielding to traffic already underway on that road (and often apparently without a glance at oncoming traffic). If the merging driver can reach any opening in traffic, the oncoming cars are expected to yield and allow the merge.
Lane Changes: lane changes and turns are more often than not signaled, but then the “first is right” rule reigns, and yielding is expected of a trailing vehicle, even if only trailing by a small margin. Imagine where the collision dent will be: if someone enters your lane and you strike the side of their vehicle, it will be assumed that you failed to yield even though they cut you off.
Left turns: at intersections, upon a green-from-red light change, vehicles intending to turn left across straight-through traffic will usually enter the intersection to accomplish their turn before straight-through traffic can proceed. While this may be reasonable in intersections without a dedicated Left Turn Arrow, expect this to occur even if there is little or no straight-through traffic approaching the intersection. Allowing the turning vehicle(s) to complete the maneuver is the best practice. Such turns are aided by the “yellow-before-green” traffic light sequence common in China. Furthermore, observe this protocol and use a “red-to-green” light change as de-facto Left Turn Arrow. If possible use a leading turning vehicle as a shield. Be aware that vehicles behind you (using you as a shield) will often try to veer to either side of you, completing their turn without regard for your situation.
(Note that large intersections may have specific left turn lights, which eliminates this problem, but beware of intersections that have signs PROHIBIT left turns during certain hours–neglect this and you may be caught by police and fined. Chinese drivers often complain about these intersections)
As always, “first is right”; trailing traffic is expected to yield. In other words, a “new” green light is usually regarded as a “left arrow”, unless a left turn light is present.
Regarding left-hand turns in general; a vehicle desiring to turn left across oncoming traffic will not consistently yield to oncoming, established traffic and await a “safe” opening. Any opening may be exploited, the required minimum size of the opening apparently depends on the left turning driver’s sense of self-preservation (larger vehicles and poorer quality vehicles will take more chances). Oncoming vehicles that slow in wariness of a possible ill-advised turn, will often prompt the turning driver to commit. Oncoming drivers are advised to continue without pause, while preparing for heavy braking or lane changes to accommodate the turner.
In summary, in western countries, the general rule is cars should yield to avoid disrupting and impeding already flowing traffic. The “first is right” rule violates this general rule. In western countries a common traffic pattern in a city is stop, wait for traffic signal, race to next traffic light and repeat. They may be moving to fast to yield to other cars. In China, vehicles can be expected to yield at any time, and traffic in cities tends moves in a slow, steady manner.
Car-pedestrian interactions are complicated; ubiquitous pedestrians, bikes, and cycles, often acting oblivious or even negligent toward surrounding traffic, are generally considered to have possessed Right of Way in any collision between them and a vehicle. If a larger vehicle strikes a pedestrian or rider, the larger vehicle will generally be assumed liable. Bearing that in mind, vehicles will use their speed and security advantage, and often the horn, to maneuver through even densely occupied crossings. Aware pedestrians will generally expect a vehicle will force through a walk way, and are often confused if the vehicle halts to allow them passage. Painted cross walks (white bars painted on road ways) are hardly typically observed as “pedestrian protected” areas, but woe to a driver who strikes a pedestrian there. Never assume a driver will actually stop for you at a marked crossing. Drivers will actually push anything in front of them off the sidewalk or side of the road, it is assumed you will move out of their way.
The “first is right” rule can be applied to car-pedestrian interactions too. If you are standing on a sidewalk at a cross walk, the driver will assume they were there first and will not yield to you. If you, the pedestrian, are already crossing, a car will have no choice but to slow down or drive around you to avoid you.
The general rule appears to be keep moving no matter what. Cutting people off, swerving into the oncoming lane, driving on the shoulder, or in a fenced-off bicycle lane, or the wrong way down a divided highway are all fine as long as they keep you moving in the right general direction and do not cause an immediate accident. If you were to wait for every person, scooter, or car, you could be in for a very long and frustrating wait. In some situations, it is perfectly normal to see cars and trucks and motorcycles all on the sidewalk along with pedestrians and bikes all going their own separate ways! Taxis are the worst offenders of this very dangerous habit.
Running red lights
Chinese drivers routinely go through red lights if there is no opposing traffic. Pedestrians do not count as traffic; just honk at them to get out of the way or swerve around them. It is also moderately common to run red lights even in the presence of other traffic.
A retired teacher in Lanzhou became a bit of a hero on the Chinese Internet in 2009 with his campaign to make an intersection near his home safer. He took to hurling bricks at cars that ran the lights  and hit over 30 before the police turned up.
Many drivers of very large construction trucks prefer to drive late at night (10pm-4am) on many roads such as the Jingmilu (Beijing). These drivers are paid by how many trips they make and because of this they are notorious among Chinese and Expatriates for running red lights, seemingly without slowing down.
As the car culture grows in China, the rules have become stricter. For example, in places where there are red light cameras to capture cars running red lights, cars will stop to avoid the fines.
Two-way traffic everywhere
Bicycles and motorcycles and sometimes cars ignore one-way signs. On divided highways, seeing pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles going the wrong way down the shoulder is entirely normal, and a few go the wrong way beside the center fence. A typical situation you may encounter is a two way road with traffic in opposite directions and center median or fence that prevents vehicles from crossing. There will be gaps in certain parts of the medians to allow left turns. If a vehicle attempting to make a left turn out of a driveway finds there is no gap in the median immediately in front of the driveway, they will usually enter road and drive the wrong way along the center median until they can find a gap and merge into the opposing lane that goes in the correct direction. Another situation where they drive the wrong way is if a vehicle wants to make a left turn off a two-way road with the center median or fence and drive into a driveway, but the driveway is not conveniently located near a gap in the median or fence. They will cross the center median in a gap before their destination driveway, drive the wrong way in the oncoming traffic lane, and exit the road when they reach their driveway. These maneuvers save the effort of travelling a distance and making a u-turn.
At traffic circles (roundabouts), drivers hate going around the island in the middle if they can avoid it; they will often just swing left instead. Lane markings are also routinely ignored; for example, taxis often go straight through an intersection via a lane marked as left turn only, because that gets them past other cars.
On newer roads there may be, for example, a roughly triangular traffic island southeast of an actual intersection to facilitate right turns. Two sides are roads; the third is a curving lane intended for drivers making a right turn from northbound to eastbound. In China, drivers turning left from westbound to southbound routinely use that lane.
Many Chinese cities have bicycle lanes fenced off on either side of the road. These lanes will carry two-way traffic regardless of the direction of the traffic flow: including bicycles and motorcycles plus the occasional car, truck and pedestrians. Cars routinely take to these lanes if traffic in the main lanes is jammed; they then honk at bicyclists to force them out of the way using their horn as a form of “sonic plow” clearing the way in front of them. The driver is operating under the assumption you will move and if you don’t move in a timely fashion you are risking being struck down if walking or on a bicycle and will most likely be blamed.
Even the sidewalks often carry two-way bicycle and motorcycle traffic, plus the odd car going to or from a parking spot. Cars again operate under the assumption they own the sidewalk and its up to you to get out of their way. Again, even on the sidewalks, vehicles honk at pedestrians to get them out of their way.
Lorry drivers may not bother with switching on lights at night. You should. Switch on your headlamps–all lights on, in fact, if there is no other vehicle approaching you. Please be aware in doing this, if the local police catch you in a vehicle with lights on during daytime, you will be fined.
Few Chinese drivers seem to know about dimming their headlights for approaching cars. Except on some freeways, driving at night is unpleasant and dangerous. Avoid it if at all possible.
When driving at night, be very aware that people often walk in the middle of the road, with the back to the oncoming traffic, in dark clothes. This is one reason local drivers do not often dip the lights. In the country, there may even be people sleeping on the road.
Bicycles very rarely have lights and many do not even have reflectors. Motorcycles often run at night without lights. Both are sometimes on the wrong side of the road. On country roads, electric bike riders turn off their lights to save battery power.
Overtaking on the right, despite being illegal, is very common in China. One reason is that slow vehicles often drive in the center lane of multi-lane roads, If you find yourself behind such a vehicle and want to pass on the right, be alert for anything from motorcycles to horse-drawn carts in the right lane.
Public buses and many private buses, rather than acting as professional drivers responsible to their human cargo, are often among the most aggressive drivers; Many in the countryside routinely ignore stoplights or fail to slow while turning, will pass stopped or slower traffic even if this requires using the oncoming traffic lanes, and will often employ their sheer size to enforce merging. Again, “first is right”: if the front of a vehicle hits the side or rear of another vehicle, the front-dented vehicle is assumed at fault, no matter the circumstances that preceded the collision.
New drivers are often marked with the label 实习, but their driving quality varies from acceptable to deplorable. Stay away from them if you can–they are often overwhelmed by the traffic as well.