As-Is Guides: Surviving Chinese Roads

Surviving Chinese Roads

Even with propaganda banners urging drivers to be more law-obedient and “civilised” around nearly every crossing, driving in China remains chaotic. But there is some order in the chaos as well. Seasoned drivers know that most behind the wheel go by one simple rule of thumb: Drivers are scared of bikers, who in turn are scared of pedestrians, who in turn might be scared of both. This cycle of mutual fear gives rise to nasty snarls, but the number of people actually hit is on the decline.

This As-Is Guide gives you a look at how the world behind the wheel (or the handlebar, or your eyeballs) work in the People’s Republic when it comes to hitting the road.


It is an open secret that because Taiwan signed the agreement recognising international driving permits (as the Republic of China before 1949), the mainland has been unable or remains unwilling to sign as the PRC. Therefore, international permits cannot be directly used in China — there are very few exceptions, probably applicable only as a temporary driver (ask at airport police posts).

As a result, if you happen to be on mainland China with an international permit, you’ll need to exchange this for a local licence. Expect at least a theory test and for newbies, a quick drive on the road (they’ll see you know how to steer, shift gears, etc).

China (as in the mainland) drives on the right-hand side, with the steering wheel on the left. You change gears using the right hand, and seat belts are on your left (you fasten them to your right). The same is true for Taiwan, but is the exact opposite for Hong Kong and Macao.

Speed limits vary:—

  • as a rule, 40-60 km/h inside built-up areas
  • 70 km/h on main avenues with traffic lights (but with a physical central reservation or two double yellow lines)
  • 80 km/h on city express roads
  • 100 km/h on express roads
  • 120 km/h on regular motorways / expressways

Always check the speed limit on especially National Highways — they have a tendency to be much more irregular.

Fines for speeding have gotten more felt over the past few years. The fines vary for how much of the speed limit you are. “Normal” speeding is when you are 20% over your speed limit (eg: +24 km/h = up to 142 km/h on a 120 km/h motorway); “significant” speeding is when you are between 20% and 50% too fast (eg: +60 km/h = up to 180 km/h on a 120 km/h motorway). Any bit faster than that and you are regarded as “seriously” going too fast.

The police will often take your licence away if you are going 50% over the prescribed speed limit — there is really little in the way of ifs and buts.

China goes by a point-based demerit system. You are given 12 points in a 12-month period, and as of late, the number of points you lose has gotten much more teeth. Run a red light, and that’s 6 points gone; drive a car with no plates (or even if you’ve had “a wee bit” to drink), and that’s all of your 12 points gone. Your case is made much more serious if somehow you’ve managed to get suspended twice within a year, after accumulating 24 points over a 12-month period.

Once your points are gone, you need to re-sit an exam (and be “re-indoctrinated” on road safety) before your point records are zapped to zero.

Your points are reset to zero in any case if you have had no points offences throughout the 12 months. The same applies if you pick up 11 or less points over the year, provided you’ve paid any outstanding penalty decisions (if you’re outstanding, the points will simply carry over to the next 12 months).

You can only get an extended licence if you have not accumulated 12 points at any time, certainly for at least 6 years.


Anyone can bike in China, and the number of bikers still remains impressive and at times uncountable. The rules state that cars should give way to bikes, especially when they turn right and bikes and pedestrians are legally crossing on a green light.

The law also requires in particular cars to stop when a pedestrian is using a zebra crossing, although this is sadly ignored even in the big cities. On country highways, this law is universally ignored; if you expected cars to stop for you (when they already are speeding), it’ll take them forever — and forcing yourself across the street when a Mercedes is roaring your way will most likely result in a tragedy! Therefore, locals often cross only when they are sure a car is not likely to immediately turn up.

Most traffic lights for pedestrians in China are automated, but for those that come with a switch or a button (provided it is actually working), pushing that button actually works in favour of the pedestrian, as it’ll make cars stop (lights on the main road will turn to red).

The safest way across a busy street is most often either by zebra crossing (ideally with a set of traffic lights), or for extra safety, via a footbridge or underground passage. Some city metro exits also double as a grade-separated crossing, although you might need to go through security checks on rare occasions.

It is against the law for anyone, particularly pedestrians, to “scale the wall” and “take the quick way out” through an avenue that has a physical central reservation. Sadly, out-of-town locals often ignore this; crashes and deaths are not unheard-of.

The biggest wildcard on the road has to be the motorbikes (and these include “e-bikes”). They often run way above their designated speed limits. In some cities, cars and even pedestrians have a problem running into their way. If you ride one of these, first ensure you have a valid licence (especially for motorbikes), and always remember to be extra safe when on the go. Slalom-riding through traffic queues is not “cool” at all if in the end it will cost your life in the form of a “bang of death”!