Traffic law in China is still in its nascent stage (see Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China). Therefore, the rules of the road in China are understood to mean both the codified and uncodified practices, procedures and norms of behavior generally followed by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians in the mainland of China.
The first traffic regulations for China went into effect on August 6, 1955. 59 articles formed the City Traffic Regulations (simplified Chinese: 城市交通规则; traditional Chinese: 城市交通規則), promulgated by the Ministry of Public Security of the People's Republic of China. It was vague and terse, however, and punishments for violators were relatively light.
In 1988 the regulations were revisited, but the result was still a traffic administrative regulation (中华人民共和国道路交通管理条例). There still was no law to control traffic.
The first expressway traffic regulations surfaced on March 26, 1990, under the title Interim Regulations for Expressways. These were strengthened later on in the 1990s, when a new regulation (albeit temporary) took effect, banning "new drivers" (PRC licence holders for less than a year) from the expressways.
The Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China represented a huge breakthrough. It instituted higher fines, compulsory vehicle insurance, and a point system for penalties, among other reforms. The bill was passed with Hu Jintao in power in late October 2003 and took effect on all of mainland China on May 1, 2004.
Except for a brief period during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when the government encouraged people to drive on the left (for symbolic/ideological reasons), the convention has been to drive on the right. In practice, however, driving to the left into oncoming traffic is not uncommon in China, nor is it as stigmatized and penalized as it is in other countries.This is especially true of bicyclists, electric bicycles, and motorcycles who—unless physically prevented by barriers—are almost equally likely to be found riding on the right, left or straight down the middle of lanes of traffic.
Right-of-way (Simplified Chinese: 先行权, Pinyin: xiānxíngquán, Lit: “first go rights”) is defined as such in all Chinese dictionaries, however, most Chinese drivers’ understanding of this concept is markedly different from those in societies with a strong tradition of the rule of law. Compared to the western understanding of right-of-way, which refers to the legal right to proceed forward in a vehicle without fear of being found at fault for causing a collision, right-of-way in China means, for all intents and purposes, that the person who is in the way (first) has the right. In practice, this translates into motorists and cyclists turning or merging straight into the path of other traffic believing that the onus is on the other person to avoid a collision.
When the right-of-way is unclear (such as at unmarked intersections) it is common practice for drivers in many parts of the world to make eye contact with each other and use nods or hand gestures to either exert or defer right-of-way. The opposite applies in China, where people actively avoid eye contact, and in fact turn away from the person whose progress they are impeding so as to communicate their intention to proceed regardless.
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Given the relatively recent introduction of a law technically requiring motorists to stop at a red light, it is not surprising that drivers frequently disregard traffic lights and proceed on red. The frequency of this occurrence varies according to time and place. A crowded intersection at midday with police presence results in drivers diligently observing the law, while a desolate intersection at 1 A.M. is sure to witness cars and trucks speeding through red lights without pause.
Pedestrians are especially in a difficult situation. In cities such as Beijing, new "self-service" traffic lights provide pedestrians with easy access across the road—just push a button, wait, and go when the light changes. Unfortunately, unless these traffic lights come with supervising cameras connected to the police, some drivers are likely to pass through these as well, making the pedestrian buttons rather pointless.
Crossings with no camera of any kind are likely to have chaotic traffic, as neither police nor technology are present to enforce the law.
A substantial change in the new Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China is a new requirement which forces drivers to stop at red lights even if there is a crossing only to the left (no crossing to the right), thereby outlawing straight-ahead at red lights that was permitted at an intersection with no crossing to the right. Drivers, however, still can turn right at red lights, unless signs prohibit this.
Finally, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, some battalions of Red Guards would gather at traffic lights, forcing drivers to stop at the green light and go once it had turned red – supposedly because red was the colour of Communism. Due to some traffic light systems being unmanned, drivers at these crossings would often[vague] go at the green light – causing collisions where a neighboring lights system was hijacked and all the drivers were going at red. Officially, the idea of "Red lights mean go" was never adopted by the regime.
A long-standing tenet has been for the larger vehicle involved in a collision to assume responsibility, e.g., if a car collides with a bicycle the car driver is at fault. If a bicycle and pedestrian collide it is the bicyclist's fault. Practically, this understanding emboldens pedestrians and cyclists to take liberties with cars and trucks, impeding their progress by moving into the flow of traffic under the assumption that larger vehicles will give way. This notwithstanding, the incidence of vehicle-pedestrian collisions is on the decline, despite the fact that the new Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China allows for only one case in which drivers are not at fault for hitting a pedestrian—that is, if the pedestrian purposely violates traffic laws.
Very few drivers will slow down when approaching a pedestrian crossing. Even fewer will actually stop for pedestrians waiting to pass by. When this happens, however, a quick wave back by the pedestrian, indicating gratitude, is not uncommon.
Road rage is uncommon in China. This is possibly due the fact that Chinese motorists have fewer expectations that other drivers will offer to "give way" and have a less legalistic/absolute view of traffic procedures. Road rage is not completely absent, however. A few cases have been witnessed in Beijing: they include assault with golf clubs, car chases and the like. Sometimes the police will intervene; those who commit extreme physical assault can often expect to be prosecuted criminally. In compliance with the Chinese criminal code, a case of road rage resulting in death will often see the offender receive the death penalty. A recent example was the Yao Jiaxin murder case.
Officially, all traffic collisions must be reported to the police. Exempt are cases where only minor damage was done to the vehicle, with nobody hurt, injured or killed. Cases of self-damage (e.g., driving into a tree) officially need to be reported to the police, but in reality, few people bother. This, however, indicates a waiver of responsibility for the insurance company.
When a collision occurs between two vehicles it is almost always resolved by the payment of money by one party to the other on the spot, with or without any admission of fault. After initial indignation or recalcitrance, one or both parties will demand financial compensation. It is supposed that either party considers the socio-economic status and occupation of the other, and the desirability of saving face. Eventually one party will relent, and they will bargain down to an agreeable amount of compensation.
Another feature of a traffic collision in China is that in many cases, neither party will move their vehicle from the position that it came to rest following the collision, regardless of its effect on the flow of traffic. It is a justifiable fear of many Chinese motorists not to move their vehicle from the scene of a collision because recent traffic law changes have provided for hefty penalties in the event of a hit-and-run. A driver found guilty of hit-and-run forfeits his or her license for life, and any party to a collision who flees the scene is subject to severe sanctions.
A vehicle with a government or military plate are not subject to the Road Traffic Safety Law of the People's Republic of China (中华人民共和国道路交通安全法); they may run red lights, drive in the wrong direction or weave in and out of traffic. Communist party officials and People's Liberation Army members are also exempt from paying road tolls and adhering to parking regulations. According to Xinhua News Agency, "police officers are also reluctant to pull over drivers of military vehicles even if the drivers are breaking the law", which is the reason behind an emerging trend where individuals purchase counterfeit military registration plates to avoid being pulled over by police. Xinhua reported in 2008 that since July 2006, over 4,000 fake military vehicles and 6,300 fake plates have been confiscated, and criminal gangs involving 5,000 people have been apprehended; under Chinese law, those caught driving under fake registration plates are fined up to 2,000 RMB, and counterfeiters can be jailed for up to three years.