Why are Chinese such bad drivers?

Now I hope you’ll read past the headline before leaving angry comments.  You’ll see that my reasons have nothing to do with genetics or race and everything to do with culture. After all, driving is so dangerous/crazy/nerve rattling that Beijing has come out with a 5-year plan to improve “driving manners.”

This list x 1.3 billion people = huge crazy mess

I have a few theories as to why these problems flourish in China, and I think there is some truth in each of them. But first let’s just clear up any doubt that drivers in China are awful.

1.   Driving is relatively new

My first theory is that most of the drivers on the road are new drivers. In 2010 China sold 13 million new cars (close to 650,000 of those were in Beijing).  That means roughly 10% of Beijing’s drivers are new drivers, you can imagine the mess that creates. Some experts estimate that 1 minute of stopped traffic can lead to 1km of backed-up traffic in Beijing, so you can see how a nervous left-turner could be a big problem.

This stems from the fact that until the last 5-10 years cars were unavailable to most people, so few bothered learning how to drive. In other countries people grow up watching their parents drive, and by the time we get behind the wheel we have an idea of what driving should look like. In China it’s all new.

2.   Driving is a status symbol

This theory ties back into my first point, that private cars are a relatively new thing. Until 2000 or so having a car meant you were part of the elite. So this idea of entitlement seems to be lingering in the drivers’ imaginations, even though owning a car is now a must for establishing yourself as middle class.

I like this theory more and more every time a car honks at me to get out of his way while they are driving on the sidewalk (yes, this happens weekly). After all, even the worst driver knows that the sidewalk isn’t for them.

3.   Driving rules aren’t enforced

Since I don’t drive in China (partially due to desire to live), I didn’t notice this one right away, but after watching people cruise through the red light in front of my apartment for a year it became clear. Traffic laws aren’t enforced by the traffic police, at all.

When I drive in the US I follow the traffic rules more out of my fear of tickets than out of respect for the law, and I’m guessing that’s true for most of you too. It’s no wonder that people only follow the laws when there are traffic cameras.

Side note of Awesome: In Lanzhou a retired school teacher decided to teach bad drivers a lesson and threw bricks at cars that did not yield to pedestrians.

The number of times I’ve wanted to do this is incalculable

Apparently a few other elderly men joined him, while onlookers rushed to get them more bricks and food (to keep up their throwing strength). The men damaged 30 cars before police stopped them. They have become internet heroes here.

45 responses to “Why are Chinese such bad drivers?”

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Five years ago, my Beijing friends had never owned a car. Now, this married couple has one each! It’s a nightmare driving anywhere in Beijing. I heard my friend say “Jiu jie” when driving behind a woman who was veering between lanes. It’s a new expression and means something like “complicated relationship”. Hard to get a more detailed translation – can anyone help me with this?

    • Jiong says:

      Jiujie 纠结 means “to be indecisive”, or “to be in two minds about something”

    • Gyan7 says:

      lol chinese women are terrible in Canada. I don’t know elsewhere but the Chinese ladies and some middle-aged Russian guys are completely lost. They are so bad with signals, turns and not stopping at the right spot. Just zerging down while its raining and then hard braking randomly out of fear in the middle of the road. Its cute when they get scared and panic but politely give you their bank card after a mistake… but honestly, while I feel sympathetic, I think that its dangerous for them to continue without learning to properly drive. Chinese are atleast polite, the Russians are impolite and swagger around with gestures like they don’t care.

  2. Chopstik says:

    I can definitely relate to not driving in China (for the desire to live longer). And the difference between today and 15 years ago is just unreal in terms of the number of cars. That being said, though, I do think that it is perhaps not as bad in some of the larger cities as it may be elsewhere. I can’t speak to the countryside, though, so that is just surmise on my part.

    Funny story from 15 years ago. While taking an organized trip from Shantou to Shenzhen, everyone was on buses traveling down the (then) new highway connecting them. In the middle of nowhere, some of the others on the bus announced that they needed to use the bathroom and they had just passed one on the side of the highway. So, (on the highway!) the bus driver calmly then proceeded to back up almost a mile along the highway to the rest stop/bathroom. The Chinese passengers didn’t see anything wrong with this (nor did the driver, obviously). The non-Chinese passengers were not nearly as calm. No accidents were incurred but it certainly opened one’s eyes to the thrills of driving in China…

    • I have lived in China for the last 7 years…….this is a common occurrence. If you miss an exit on a highway, it is perfectly acceptable to stop (in the middle lane, no less) and back you car up several hundred meters so you can get off the correct exit. Simply amazing!!!!! I have no other words for it.

      I can say I have seen cars either fully stopped (while traffic is freely flowing) and/or in reverse on major highways at least 25 times since I have been here.

  3. Tom says:

    When I was in the countryside we would take motorcycle taxis fairly often. If I didn’t pretend I was in an Indiana Jones movie, it was too scary to handle.

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  5. cdh says:

    I heard an “expert” on CCTV describe it this way once: He said that people here “drive the same way that they ride bicycles.” I thought about it for a second and it all made sense to me..

    • Tom says:

      Assuming you could ride a bicycle at 60mph and it weighed half-a-ton, I’m sure it would look something similar.

    • Henry Fjord says:

      This is EXACTLY it. The drive like they are still on bikes. “If my car fits in the space then it must be OK for me to go through there” / “oops missed my exit I’ll just roll back a bit and make a right turn” / “don’t know where I’m going so I’ll just stop right here and pull out a map”.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ray Kwong, Bridget Steis, Mark A, foundinchina, don johnston and others. don johnston said: RT @raykwong: Why are Chinese such bad drivers? http://twurl.nl/82l3om […]

  7. Sylvain says:

    Actually, you are not only talking about drivers (see your point 10). More generally, if you look at behaviors in other public spaces (giving seat or way in public transportation, keeping doors open in elevator, smoking in restaurant, throwing garbage on the street), you come to the idea that the way of life is very selfish. Maybe that’s a consequence of the huge competition and opportunities Chinese people are facing now.

  8. Yokie Kuma says:

    There is another reason why driving in China seems to be bad …. the driver’s manual is quite confusing.

    In Shenzhen, the driving manual is roughly 1500 question. When you go for your license, you are asked 100 of them (randomly). You need 90% correct to get a license.

    However, some of these questions make NO sense or are meaningless …. here are a few examples: When a motor vehicle makes a U turn, the maximum speed should be no more than _____________.
    A. 50km
    B. 40km
    C. 30km
    D. 60km
    Answer: C
    ** when did km become “speed”?** When discovering people or animals crossing the expressway, the driver should ________.
    A. Immediately apply emergency braking
    B. Immediately turn right to evade
    C. Take decisive measures to evade and minimize the loss
    D. Immediately turn left to evade
    Answer: C When a vehicle falls into water, the driver should in no way panic. In particular, those who cannot swim should first manage to escape through the windows. As long as they reach the water surface, they will have more chances to survive.
    Answer: Right
    ** How can people who cannot swim reach the surface?** The maximum free adjustment angle of the steering wheel of a motor vehicle is no more than ________.
    A. 5 degrees
    B. 30 degrees
    C. 10 degrees
    D. 20 degrees
    Answer: B If the fact of a traffic accident is clear and the parties refuse to leave the scene and cause a traffic jam, the traffic police should order them to leave within a time limit.
    Answer: Wrong

    There are 1500 of these ……

    • Tom says:

      The traffic accident question is a good one. I commute on a very busy road, and it seems like every other day I am late to work because somebody had an accident. After the accident, they just get out of their cars (in the middle of the road) and argue about who should pay for 30 minutes. Drives me crazy.

  9. Dan says:

    I was in Beijing this past winter and got stuck in two half hour long traffic jams – my bus did not move. China definitely does not have a ‘car culture’ like other developed countries do – and it seems to me, part of the mentality in China is ‘every man for himself’ which does not help at all in driving. Driving in China is kind of like a giant game of chicken.

    • Tom says:

      It’s amazing to see the difference between Hong Kong’s driving and the way they do it on the mainland. If only China would import that.
      Like someone pointed out earlier, it is ‘every man for himself’ for a lot of things here.

  10. […] A man who lives in China has some theories on why there are so many bad drivers where he lives. […]

  11. Driving in China is indeed rather crazy. Without enforcement of the traffic rules it’s going to remain this way as far as I can see. You say driving in China is relatively new, which is indeed true, and that in other countries people learn to drive by watching their parents, and therefore know how to be well behaved most of the time on the road. With the current state of China’s drivers, how will the young be able to improve their driving standard if they are learning from the current generation of drivers? Does anyone know if there were similar situations when other countries first started driving and how they were resolved to make driving safer? Maybe it’s just a matter of enforcement of the rules?

    I also get frustrated at the car-first mentality when I’m trying to cross the road at pedestrian crossings, especially when drivers abuse the ‘right-turn at red light’ rule. As far as I understand it, drivers can make a right turn at a red light providing there are no pedestrians crossing. I find most people ignore the pedestrians crossing part.

    • Tom says:

      It get’s pretty hairy crossing the street. It seems like for the most part drivers would rather swerve than slow down, and when you aren’t used to that is pretty darn scary.
      As a rule of thumb, when I’m crossing the street I am for the back bumper of the car going through the red light, so far it’s worked fairly well for me. My wife on the other hand got too comfortable with it and has accidentally kicked cars as they speed past.

    • Ian says:

      From my own experiences of living in China I can only say it’s the worst driving I have ever seen. I know there are a few other countries with bad driving . I cannot remember the number of times when I have attempted to cross a pedestrian crossing only to find the traffic continues all around you. the police and government does nothing that I know of about the problems. there is simply no excuse for the diabolical driving standards. I hold a full licence from motor cycle to HGV and that includes any bus. the driving tests we must pass in the west are nothing like in China. you would think the government would learn from from this. I asked a friend don’t they know what the black and white zebra lines across the road means and his answer was so funny. they have copied this from the west and it’s there for show. cars doing a three point turn on a pedestrian crossing. drivers too afraid to reverse a car that they ask a complete stranger to do it for them. motor cycles and cars driving on the pavements that are supposedly there for people to walk in safety. I am not racist . my wife is Chinese and it makes you chuckle when other Chinese agree the driving standards are silly. it’s very simple. the laws need to be changed before there is going to be any sign of improvement with the present growing problems with driving in China. I am a professional driver and have been for a number of years. but I would never drive in China. the driving test is not good and it would feel like I would be lowering my driving standards but that’s not the part that really bothers me.I just want to live longer. another thing that is very dangerous is drivers do not use
      the gear box to help slow them down on hills. this is very common with bus drivers.
      into neutral and often with the engine switched off down the hill brakes smoking. to save fuel. so the brake linings take a hammering and no wonder when you hear of a bus or truck that has left a mountain road and crashed.. China is still very much in the stages of infancy when it comes to driving. going by today’s quality of driving I would say because of the lack of proper intervention from the government it’s going to be a very long time until you see much safer driving standards and on top of that the amount of new drivers and cars coming onto it’s roads is rising. Good luck China

  12. […] We can only guess at the reasons why Chinese are terrible drivers. […]

  13. Don Tai says:

    Here in Toronto, Canada, Chinese drivers have a terrible reputation. Your observations are correct for both China and Toronto. New drivers with low skill level. New immigrants that want to show off to relatives back in China, so they buy the largest SUV possible. Unfortunately for the rest of Toronto, these people have a difficult time driving their large vehicle and are a hazard on the road. To compensate for their low driving skill they drive very slowly, blocking traffic. You should see how slow they drive when it snows! I used to say if you cannot get your driver’s license in Hong Kong, we’ll give you one here in Toronto, but now most new immigrants are from the Mainland. Still, it is much worse in China, so I should be thankful.

  14. Roy says:

    I’m not sure that this would apply only for Chinese people, I showed the video to some teammates in the office, and they thought that the video was taken in different cities of Latin America, most of them, cross roads of Mexico city as our HQ are located there. Also, looking in youtube, you can find a lot of videos, of different countries in different continents, that show the same lousy behavior while driving.

    I would suggest that bad-driving should not be apply as a stereotype to a nationality, and propose that this is caused by social or environmental circumstances. I’ve seen that excellent drivers from countries where they are penalized with big fines, as the States or West European countries become “road warriors” when they are visiting here, and also, lousy drivers that become a model of good driving when visiting countries where rules are enforced.

    I hope that someday I’ll be able to experience the driving experience in China.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for you input Roy.
      I think part of what makes the roads feel so crazy here is simply the number of people on them. As you can see though from the other comments, there is no shortage of bad driving stories coming out of China.
      I think my third argument might be the most important, and one that surprises people who haven’t been to China, that the rules aren’t enforced.
      In China you can’t check your facebook, but you can run red lights to your heart’s content.

  15. light487 says:

    Having only visited China on two separate occasions my views may not be entirely accurate.. however, I spent a month there each time and visited a number of the northern cities from Shanghai/Wuhan/Chengdu/Xi’an/Beijing/Nanjing/Hangzhou and a few smallers places as well. I travel by myself so I get to see a lot of what’s happening on the ground, so to speak.

    From what I understand, most people drive at a leisurely pace by comparison to western countries. Sometimes they drive 20km/h under the posted speed limit (come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a posted limit.. but I’m just assuming there’s a 60-ish km/h limit).. When someone does something “crazy”, people don’t get mad, they just go around them.. and since they weren’t driving like a bat out of hell and they are also used to the craziness, there is less accidents.

    Having said this however, I certainly noticed the immense difference between the skilled drivers (taxi/bus drivers) and the unskilled drivers (non-taxi/bus drivers). Point #1 alludes to this situation where these people are literally learning on the go.. the reason being is that even though they would have sat a driving test and all that, in the real world driving, you literally need to make it up as you go due to the aforementioned craziness.. 🙂

    So, while there may be a lot of bad drivers… there is, rather oddly, less accidents.. and the accidents I did encounter were mere dings and scratches by comparison to some of the horror crashes I have actually witnessed first-hand here in Australia (they happen often enough here that I can witness them first-hand).. and just think.. total population of Australia is barely 25 mil.. 🙂

    • Tom says:

      I’ve seen a lot of fender benders because in my city the traffic is too bad for people to go fast enough to cause serious damage, but we also get stories of whole buses going of the road. The only thing is that the gov’t limits how many of those stories get released.
      In the hospital we do get a fair number of pedestrians hit by cars.
      Also it was only in the last 6 months that there has been a push against drunk driving.

  16. Tanya says:

    I think your first point is extremely important – it’s a whole city (country) of first-generation drivers. My parents grew up watching their parents drive. Most people I know understood the basic mechanics of how a car works long before getting behind the wheel. There just isn’t that same baseline of general knowledge and “common sense” here. Imagine not only a city full of learner drivers, but learner drivers who have never seen a car driven correctly!

    That said, I think the overall competency of driving in Beijing has improved in the past few years. Yes, the traffic is much worse, but this is due to the increased number of cars on the road, not that the drivers themselves are behaving less well.

  17. paviavio says:

    Drivers tend to blame others for bad traffic.

  18. john book says:

    I know this is an older posting, but had to add my 2 cents….

    If you’ve ever been in traffic in Mexico, Spain, and most of the Middle East, men are the predominate drivers and the vehicle is their man-hood! Little or no respect for laws or anyone else near the road or street! Horns and curses all over the place!!

    I also noticed Asian drivers in Van Couver, Canada were pretty different. See a shop you wish to go into? Stop your car on the 4 lane street and just leave it there and go into the shop. No place to park on the street? The side-walk is always good for parking. Wanna turn in any direction? Go ahead, the cars behind and beside you will of course get out of your way.

    In Japan it was reported that a guy coming or going into a parking lot was struck by another car. Apology in Japan is a PARAMOUNT thing to do in Japan if you are in the wrong!!!! (You are usually forgiven almost anything if you have a good apology.) Well, the guy in the wrong in this case didn’t apologize the right way or enough so the victim driver stabbed the other guy repeatedly with his umbrella point! No charges filed!!

  19. […] transportation (~10% of the problem), narrow roads (70%), and tens of thousands of new drivers driving with Chinese characteristics (20%), traffic can rapidly spiral out of control. When packed on a bus with more than 50 other […]

  20. […] Why are Chinese such bad drivers? – Long before I had a blog, I toyed (briefly) with the idea of trying to do freelance pieces. I remember first drafting this in the Tokyo airport on the way back to the US for Christmas in 2009, as it had always been a fascination of foreigners to speculate as to why the driving habits here were so…what’s a nice way to put this…peculiar. […]

  21. C.S. says:

    I just saw this on your year end list.

    The driving education is also horrible. Instead of teaching students why the things on your list is bad or teaching them things that could save their life, like turning into a skid when you hydroplane, instructors tell them “you just need to get a feel for it.” How helpful!

    I think it’s because: (1) they got the job from guanxi instead of merit, (2) they didn’t look at any of the research on these issues in the West, and (3) they’re new to driving as well. The younger ones in particular tend to see it as a video game — which is particularly frightening.

    That said, this isn’t a logocentric society, so teaching students the reasons for things why wouldn’t necessarily help the issue. But making them learn these things to pass the test might.

  22. ben says:

    perhaps one of the biggest reasons is that many of the driving licenses are purchased rather than earned by passing a driving test

  23. mefirst says:

    A friend of mine is married to a Chinese national. The Chinese partner recently took her driving test in China and the practical test only consists of the following : driving straight on for 100 metres and then backwards, parking and driving up a ramp. She gave the examiner a couple of cigarette packets with a stash of 100RMB notes inside. This is how all candidates pass. No wonder, therefore, that nobody can drive.

    As in all other aspects of life, the China has a strong “me first” culture. You see this very clearly in their driving skills and in various other situations such as getting on and off public transport, getting in and out of elevators, doors etc etc etc. When the Chinese driver toots the horn, he is shouting “ME FIRST< ME FIRST" and when he balsts the horn endlessly, he is behaving like a spoilt baby in his mother's pushchair crying "ME FIRST, ME FIRST,ME FIRST, ME FIRST" .

    Just as an addendum, in the Chinese city where I live, taxi drivers pick up and let out passengers in the middle lanes of busy avenues. They sometimes even stop diagonally so that they are blocking three lanes at a time.

    I wonder for how long they would stay alive if you made them drive in the centre of Paris or Amsterdam. Luckily though, we will never find out as Chinese licences are not accepted abroad and they need a hard-to-obtain visa to enter nearly every country in the world.

    • Ian says:

      I could not agree with you more . many people still do give smokes and money and I know of a few young drivers who have done this. horn hooting. not your usual beep beep. but more often a constant beeping. you hear it and see it all the time. one driver will sound his or her horn and then it’s like everyone else has to do the same. China has also got to be one of the noisiest nations in the world. just think of all the HUGE revenue the Chinese government would make if it only enforced the driving laws correctly. on the spot fines and tickets for drivers who fail to stop at RED lights and PEDESTRIAN crossings. I am very surprised that they have failed to do this.. it’s MONEY . having said that I still like the ordinary Chinese and not the self centered selfish who remind me of some of the western types . me me me. I’m first. push shove I also believe that many of the problems that plague China were born out a long time ago. for centuries China was closed to much of the outside world and the cultural revolution also did it’s part to hold back China . unlike many other countries that have integrated and mixed and learned new technologies and creativity. China has gained the name of the masters of copying just
      about everything . with the present way things are like censorship of the internet that denies people in China the knowledge that so many in other countries are able to take
      for granted. blocked internet sites that show a lot of the truth. THIS OFFENDS I WANT TO KEEP CONTROL. ME ME ME. it’s only going to help hold back China. I find it laughable that some parts of China’s history are eagerly approved by the government while many other recent happenings are taboo and hidden . it’s called the truth and the truth as we know all too well offends SOME people and they take certain measures so it is kept away from the people. it makes those who presently wield the power very much afraid. see and hear only what we want .
      God bless the ORDINARY Chinese people.

  24. avezzano says:

    I live in Yangzhou, Jiangsu. There’s multiple accidents everyday and deaths are far too common. A perfect example of the bad attitude here, a Chinese friend of mine says when crossing an intersection, “it’s my turn to cross, I don’t need to look left or right.”

    There is also a strong sense of loosing social status if you give way, or be courteous to strangers (this goes for daily life also).

    One of the other problems, is the local government want to win all sorts of prestigious awards. So they will sweep such incidents as car crashes or related deaths, under one big rug. – Whenever a government inspection is made, “red hat” volunteers appear on the street for a week, to make sure everyone plays by the “rules” while the inspections take place. Which is “great” according to a Chinese friend of mine because, “we can do what we want again after the inspection is over.”

    In my opinion the only way to improve the situation in China is for the government to step up, stop worrying about looking bad, enforce traffic violation fines, and educate the public more.

    I’ll finish on this video I uploaded of my friend being HIT by a CAR while INSIDE McDonalds.

  25. Ian says:

    This is called gate crashing the person was only trying to get in front of the line. it happens all the time in China. I hope you see the funny humorous side to my comment.

  26. […] “What the…?” Sean, who had gotten his Chinese driver’s license a few months prior, had been driving the speed limit and was wearing a seat belt. By all measures, he was probably the most reasonable driver on the road. […]

  27. […] from me.  And their blog does cover a variety of topics relating to the Chinese man, his past, present and future. […]

  28. bestchinesedriver888 says:

    You are all bad drivers except me as I am half chinese half something else hence my sense and sensibility is better. Chinese are good in grabbing other’s belongings though…

  29. 五毛哥 says:

    China indeed have bad drivers, but no more than elsewhere. Driving in Hefei in a daily basis, I don’t feel the video of Shanghai is an example of bad driving. This is just an example standard driving. A bad driver would be someone following the official rules, this would really make people in danger. Good driving in China means adapt to the mess, because there are a lot of implicit rules that rely on opposite thinking compared to Western driving style. I wrote an article about it: http://www.wumaoge.com/2013/02/01/roads-of-china/

    • cartoonasaur says:

      Much worse – number one in the world worse. Eight times the death rate of the USA.

      According to China, too.

      Quoted here:

      “It was a little ironic as the overall number of vehicles in China is far smaller than that in Western countries, while the death rate from road accidents is much higher,” said an academic surnamed Wang who was quoted in the China Youth Daily.

      “According to our research, the death toll and death rate per 10,000 automobiles here is eight times more than that in America,” he said.

      The most important factor was still the negligence of drivers. Statistics showed that last year some 78.5 per cent of the deaths, about 86,000 people, were caused by improper driving.

      Punishment for negligent drivers is said to be too lenient due to a failure of the relevant laws to catch up with current conditions.

      • 五毛哥 says:

        This article is ten years old. Seeing how fast the car industry expands (in a small town like Hefei there is 300 new cars everyday on the roads), the rates are probably not accurate anymore when compared to USA. The statistics don’t either tell if the deaths happen in cities or in countryside. I see many accidents in the city but only small bumps caused by traffic jam. In the countryside the lack of road signs may explain severe accidents, but in the cities it’s definitely not more dangerous than other countries. Just know how to react and you’re good.

  30. Canuck says:

    We have a lot of new drivers in Toronto from mainland China and India. Some are so bad you know they bribed an examiner. Learning to drive when your 30 or older means often you’re a crappy driver. I learned at 15 but was only a good driver in my 20s. Imagine 300000 of these kinds of drivers in your city and you can see why people born here are a little racist about certain groups of drivers.

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