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No Rules: Traffic Accidents and Driving in China

China has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world, and it’s easy to see why: the people drive as though they have a death wish or they think they’re immortal. 92% of automobile accidents in China are due to bad driving skills alone.

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“Some racist people in Canada say that Chinese people are bad drivers because their eyes are slanty and they therefore have less peripheral vision,”a Canadian sociologist explained to me in Hangzhou back in 2005. “But that’s not true,”she continued, “Chinese people have the same peripheral vision as anybody else, they just don’t look side to side when driving.”

Over the years of my travels through China I put this socialogist’s observation to the test. I would watch taxi drivers as they drove me around and I would observe drivers in other cars, trucks, and buses, and, to my surprise, what I found matched what I was told: nobody looks behind them when driving. Even when switching lanes blind-spots are not checked, and mirrors are only haphazardly consulted. The heads of drivers in this country are as though they’re fixed permanently staring straight ahead, they don’t move. The driver’s eyes also seem glued to a point on the distant horizon directly in front of them. I hold my breath each time my driver switches lanes, and, to be honest, I don’t find it to be a relief that the drivers in the oncoming vehicles are also only looking straight ahead.

In China, everybody seems to only be looking forward when driving cars, motorcycles, or even when riding bicycles. The thought, perhaps, is that if everybody is looking straight ahead then everybody is watching where they are going, and if everyone is watching where they are going then they can always avoid obstacles. Perhaps this works, but I’m skeptical. The facts also do not ring in support of the Chinese driving system. China has one of the highest rates of automobile accidents on the planet, each year it is estimated that over 100,000 people die on the roads of this country — over 300 each day. China sees nearly half a million car accidents annually, and these are just the ones that are recorded.

Traffic in China

Traffic in China

Defensive driving is perhaps a Western construct, as is checking blind-spots, looking behind you before changing lanes, and attempting to make sure that the other drivers on the road notice you before driving in front of them. Chinese drivers seem to always be playing offense.

Driving, perhaps as much as anything else, represents a culture, and every country has it’s own driving culture. In the more individualistic societies of the West, we’re taught to watch our own backs at all times — we look around everywhere when we drive, never trusting anyone; in the more communally oriented East, everyone watches the back of the person in front of them.

Watch a video of traffic in China

Far too many times to mention I’ve observed people on ebikes, motorcycles, moving directly in front of a roaring bus or tractor trailer while acting completely oblivious to its presence. I often gasp and grit my teeth as I watch some lady on an ebike nearly get creamed by a bus or some dude on a motorcycle who comes within a foot or two of being steam rolled by an 18 wheeler. It is my impression that Chinese people either don’t realize that a speeding bus can run them over or they simply don’t care. That’s the only rationale I can come up with for people who swerve right in front of much larger vehicles so regularly and with so little apparent care. The Chinese have many folktales about immortality, and I’m starting to suspect that they may believe them to be true, for how else could so many people frivolously risk their lives daily?

But even more than this there is also an incredible neglect of road rules in China. Simply put, I see little evidence that they even exist. There does not seem to be much enforcement of traffic laws other than the occasional police officer directing traffic at an intersection, and getting to your destination as fast as possible and by any means necessary seems to be the rule. This means regularly driving cars in the wrong direction, blowing through stop lights, and when the traffic slows or comes to a stop driving onto the shoulder or the opposite lane to get around the obstruction rather than waiting for it to clear. Slowing down or stopping on the roads of this country seems to be a sacrilege. There are, of course, traffic rules in China, but they serve more as guidelines that are open to interpretation than an impregnable code of the road.  Clearly, something isn’t working very well, and a recent study indicates that 92% of traffic accidents in China are caused by bad driving skills.

The highways are the most dangerous places to be in China. Forget the inner-city slums, forget the borderlands, forget all those places that travelers will generally associate with danger, it’s on the highways where the traveler in China is at most risk. An astute observer could say that this is statistically true of all countries in the world, but I would reply by inviting this individual to take a bus out of Shanghai at rush hour. To say it’s absolute insanity would not only be cliche, but also a gross understatement. The highways leading in and out of this city seem to be perpetually strewn with smashed up cars, defaced trucks, random pieces of both strewn everywhere, and men milling about it all yelling at each other and talking on cell phones.

As I rode out of Shanghai a couple of weeks ago I observed the refuse from the day’s accidents as they were still piled up on the side of the highway. The bus I was on swerved out of the way of an errant tire that sat in the middle of the lane like a skull posted at the gate of a cannibal village. Three hundred meters later was the car the wheel flew off of. Two men stood staring at their now three wheeled vehicle, wondering what to do next. A hundred more meters on was the gas tanker that had cause the wheel to go flying off. Its front bumper showed slight damage. The three wheeler conversion seemed to be a small price to pay, as the people in that car could have easily been massacred.

The driver of the bus I was in did not let up on the gas pedal, accidents on the highways of China seem to be as much a part of the landscape as the pavement itself.

A dozen kilometers later the traffic on the already congested highway quickly became vastly more concentrated. I breathed in deep when I saw the mass of traffic ahead reduced to a stand still. I cringed as watched the two lanes of the highway turn to four. Rather than waiting in line behind the vehicles in front, half of the drivers tried to get ahead of their rivals by converting the shoulders of the highway into more lanes. There was now a globular mass of cars, trucks, and buses piled on the highway as they vied for position while moving past another vehicular accident. The right away on the roads of China works on caveman logic: smaller vehicles give way to larger ones while evenly matched buses and trucks battle to the finish.

I looked down from my window at a salary man in a fancy little coup who was being sandwiched between a tractor trailer and my bus. It was a game of mere inches, and, to my awe, his shiny new car did not receive a scratch. What was even more amazing was that none of the drivers seemed stressed, none appeared as if they were in a potentially precarious circumstance — nobody was yelling, flicking each other off, or road-raging. It was business as usual. The guy who was being sandwiched between two massive vehicles displayed a cool that I could not understand, he was even talking on a mobile phone. In my country, people flip the fuck out in such circumstances, but not here. Everybody in this traffic pile up remained totally cool: the driver of the tractor trailer chatted with his shirtless buddy in the passenger seat, the salary man in the coup continued chatting on his mobile phone, and the driver of my bus moved without a care as to whether or not he smashed into either. All in a day’s work on the highways of China.

Soon enough we moved through the accident. I saw what had happened: a car had been t-boned by a tractor trailer and pushed sideways along the highway. The front of the truck ran flush with the passenger side door of the car, which was turned to it at a perfectly perpendicular 90 degree angle. The drivers coolly stood outside evaluating the wreckage, calling people on cellphones who could make it all better. Like the previous accident, there were no police cars, no ambulances, no clean-up crews, and no tow trucks on the scene. Again, there was nothing but the smashed up vehicles and a group of men wondering what to do next.

After driving past two accidents in a matter of minutes the unscathed drivers on the highway did not show any indication that they realized they could be next. Nobody slowed down. The accidents they had just forced their way through did not seem to ring any chords of mortality, the stacks of skulls by the gate served as warnings to nobody. This shows an aspect of Chinese culture that I cannot fully grasp: the doom of their fellow men does not inhibit others from following them to the grave. This is a society that seems to believe in fate and destiny over cause and effect.


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Filed under: China, Danger, Traffic

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • David S. Wills July 26, 2012, 5:23 am

    I always say that the Chinese are the worst drivers I’ve ever seen… but then again I’ve never really seen many accidents here. It’s like they all know they’re bad, so they all expect the unexpected and avoid collisions. In Korea I saw an accident a week, or worse, and they were horrendous. In China it’s a bump that barely leaves a scratch whenever I see it.

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    • Wade Shepard July 26, 2012, 5:30 am

      Yes, there is an odd sort of way that it all works out most of the time. Right on, nobody trusts anyone to follow any of the rules, which is sort of a safety precaution in and of itself haha. But, man, I’ve seen a lot of accidents here, but they never seem to be that bad unless out on the highway. The urban ones also seem to involve ebikes a lot of the time, which people seem to drive far worst than cars.

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  • Lynne July 26, 2012, 10:54 am

    It’s the same in Morocco. People just look straight ahead also and don’t check blind spots. I discovered this past year that there is actually a name for the blind spot, it is called “L’angle morte.” (angle of death) People claim they aren’t taught about that in Morocco, but the drivers’ license instructors say, “that’s just for very advanced drivers.”

    I think this looking straight ahead thing is something cultural, perhaps common to in-group-type cultures?

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    • Wade Shepard July 26, 2012, 11:46 am

      That’s totally interesting about the “advanced drivers only” comment. That’s the way it’s looked at.

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