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How to Stay Safe — and Sane — When Driving in China

Think back to drivers education: Students learn how to parallel park, merge onto the highway and complete turns. But do they learn how to maneuver between mules and street vendors while cars flood around them?

Expats who may qualify themselves as expert drivers in their home country may find themselves struggling to avoid collisions when living abroad in China. That's because, while the traffic rules are generally the same, they are often ignored, according to InterNations,[1] a global network for expats.

Chinese roads are cluttered with pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles and everything in between. But for expats who live in China and are confident, patient drivers, there are ways to safely navigate through the chaos.

“You should learn the neighborhood and roadways by watching from the comfort of a taxicab.”

— Christine Surlien, a consultant for ChinaScratched

Learn by Watching

While studying regulations and traffic rules helps expats prepare to drive in China, Christine Surlien, a consultant for ChinaScratched, an online resource for expats living in China, says it's nearly impossible to understand what it's like to drive in China without experiencing it firsthand.

"You should learn the neighborhood and roadways by watching from the comfort of a taxicab," she says. "That way, you can get a feel for what it's like without the risk of an accident."

Surlien and her husband try to limit their own driving by relying mostly on taxi services and a hired driving service. If expats are planning to pay for driving or taxi services, they can use an online foreign exchange service to convert foreign currency and calculate foreign exchange rates  when moving to a home abroad in China.

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Survival of the Most Alert

Because traffic rules are more like guidelines in China, drivers and pedestrians must be alert at all times. Crossing the road can be like playing a game of Frogger, where "you hop from lane to lane, crossing up to 10 lanes of opposing traffic to get to your destination,"says Katie Bodell, a freelance travel writer and the blog editor at Pacifica, Calif.-based Trekaroo, a family travel website.

In Bodell's experience, unless there is a police officer present, pedestrians are in charge of their own safety, and drivers generally won't give them the right of way - even when there's a walk sign. "Under Chinese law, drivers are required to yield to pedestrians, but just because it's law doesn't mean it's widely or willingly obeyed," she explains.

According to Surlien, the best way to cross a busy street is to get in the middle of a large group of pedestrians. "There is power in numbers, so the cars will have to stop," she says.

Unique Traffic Rules of the Road

Here are some guidelines that are specific to China's roadways and its foreign vehicles:

·      Drive only six days a week.  Based on license plate numbers, each car has a designated day during which it cannot be operated in Beijing and possibly some other major cities, according to Bodell.

·      Beware of military vehicles and fire trucks. They are exempt from traffic rules and regulations, according to Driving In, an international driver's guide.

Whether expats plan on walking or driving while they're living abroad in China, they should be aware of their surroundings at all times, and always expect the unexpected.

[1] "Driving in China,"

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