26 September 2006

Chinese Traffic (China: 3 of 5)

China drives on the right-hand side of the road (a gift from the brief American occupation at the end of WWII). That put it a big step up from Japan in my willingness-to-drive book because my ingrained instinct of moving to the right works. But even so I'd much rather drive in Japan than China -- Chinese drivers are terrifying!

For starters, you have to imagine a world where all the lane lines separated two lanes of traffic moving in the same direction are just gone. China's roads actually have perfectly fine lane markers, but they aren't relevant to the driving habits of China's drivers. We had a number of taxi and private drivers over the week in China, and every single one of them casually drifted around the road based on conveience, attention, and guesses at upcoming traffic. Breakdown lanes, it turns out, make handy passing lanes. Who knew?

This tendancy to wander on the road might not be so scary if it wasn't for the fact that China has a smaller "personal space" for cars as well as people. Cars on a Chinese road drive *incredibly* close together. It's routine for cars moving at the speed of traffic to be only far enough apart that the rear-view mirror doesn't hit the other car.

When you're in that situation, the role of a car horn is considerably changed. In the US, even on our relatively belligerent east coast, honking the horn means "I think you did something wrong." In China, there's far too little space to wait and honk only when the other person has actually done something -- you honk pre-emptively to make sure the other driver or rider doesn't do anything. So, in China, the meaning of the horn becomes simply "I'm here". We had a particularly noise-making taxi driver on our way to the giant Buddha tourist wier who honked, on average, every ten seconds.

Thankfully, the speed of traffic is usually 40-50mph instead of the 70mph I routinely drive in the US. But the scariness level is more than matched because the 90% of Chinese who don't own a car are also on the road riding a whole variety of scooters and bicycles (and usually without a helmet, to boot). It's one thing to be only six inches from another car with both of you weaving in and out of traffic without concern for lanes -- much more frightening when you add vulnerable humans riding bikes and scooters to the mix. The biggest roads have separated lanes for scooters and bikes, but many of the streets are a complete jumble.

Sadly, this does seem to give rise to a lot of traffic accidents -- we saw several during the week, and everyone had a story of a friend or relative who had been involved in one.

China isn't lawless -- everyone stops for red lights. But once the light at an intersection is green, everyone proceeds directly from where they are to where they're going. Details like left-turn lanes (again, nicely marked on the road) are cheerfully ignored if it can produce a 1-2 car advantage.

So, compared to all that, merely learning to drive on the left seems easy. Japanese car rental, here I come!

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