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Health and Safety: On the road in China

It is easy to get stressed out when travelling by road in China, so here we offer some tips and advice on how to stay safe.

Most resident expats will remember the first time they travelled by road in China. They will either have taken a taxi, or have been picked up on arrival at the airport before being brought to their hotel. That journey will have been a little eye-opener of modern China and how although cities have changed and much infrastructure has been built, old habits remain ingrained. Bicycles may have been replaced with electric scooters and cars, however the attitude of the lone cyclist has prevailed. Little consideration is given to other road users, road markings are routinely ignored and drivers seem only to want to get to their destination in the fastest time possible: all of which makes for some scary driving experiences and an increasing number of accidents.

Action on Road Safety

As more and more cars come on to China’s roads each year, the government has been pressed to act on road safety. December 2, 2012 was the first annual China Road Safety Day. Officials from the Ministry of Transport, the police and various volunteer organizations held a number of exhibitions and lectures to promote road safety. There was also a heavy presence on roads where government workers handed out pamphlets advising drivers to adhere to the rules of the road. That will be one of China’s biggest issues as it tries to improve driving standards - strictly enforcing the rules of the road and punishing those that break them.

National Driving Regulations

Worryingly, many drivers simply do not know the national driving regulations and do not abide by them as they are so loosely enforced. The problem stems from how young drivers are taught and how they earn their licence. To begin with, budding young drivers must complete a driving instruction and theory course, usually a minimum of eight lessons, with a qualified instructor. Once the course has been completed, the instructor decides whether or not the applicant has sufficient skill and knowledge to receive their licence. Of course, such a system is open to manipulation, and offerings of gifts or cash are usually made in exchange for the licence being issued. The result is a significant number of new or learner drivers on the roads that do not have the skills or knowledge to drive safely and competently.

Road Traffic Accidents

China has one of the worst road safety records as per the number of cars on the roads. Large scale accidents involving buses, trucks and lorries regularly result in serious injury and fatalities. In the first six months of 2011, 25,864 people died on Chinese roads with many thousands more injured. Because of underreporting by police and discrepancies about how the statistics are compiled - for example, deaths occurring on unofficial roads are not included - many observers feel the actual number of deaths is at least double the official toll.

3 Tips for Prevention

Although very few expats actually drive themselves, many will have their own driver or regularly use taxis. Nonetheless, the following tips and advice will help maintain a degree of safety while travelling on the road.

1. Use the Seat Belt

Nobody seems to use the seat belt in China; not the driver or any of the passengers. Although traffic police can be found at major road junctions at peak times, rarely will they pull a driver over for not wearing their seat belt. Like many of China’s road laws, this one is not enforced at all. That does not, however, mean that abstaining from seat belt use is okay. Using the seat belt has been proven to save lives, and those who refuse to use it are placing themselves and fellow passengers at greater risk of serious injury.

Should a car crash while travelling at high speeds, passengers that are not wearing their seat belt have little control over their bodies. They can easily injure themselves through impact with the cars interior, or depending where they are sitting, they might collide with fellow passengers or even be thrown out of the car. Seat belts are not just there for decoration, they are integral to road safety. So use them.

2. Slow Down

Although it might just be a short drive from A to B, there is no doubt a driver will try to get there in the quickest time possible. This will involve weaving in and out of traffic lanes, possibly breaking red lights, and continuously beeping at other cars, cyclists, and even pedestrians that dare to get in the way. Unless there is a genuine emergency and a need for driving at that speed, simply ask the driver to slow down. They may not speak good English, so three basic words should get the message across: man man kai (慢慢开).

3. Alternatives to Road Travel

After one or a number of hell-raising driving experiences, some may decide it’s not really for them and choose a different form of transport. Within most of China’s major cities, the subway or metro offers a viable alternative. It is cheap, stations are plentiful and it runs from early morning until around midnight. For intercity travel, China’s rail network now covers most of the country, with some major cities and provinces connected by the new high-speed rail service. This is often the best and safest way to travel between cities as driving standards drop considerably in rural areas.


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