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How to cycle and drive safely in China

Photo by Kentaro Iemoto

For cyclists, road safety should always be a priority – but that’s especially true in China, where they face all kinds of dangers. Cycle lanes, if available, can shield you from some of the worst excesses, but you need to have your wits about you at all times. If you’re driving in China, even more so. Here’s a guide to staying safe on the roads.


The basics

The best advice we can give for driving, cycling, and in fact walking or crossing China’s roads, is to keep your eyes open and look all around you, and at all times. Always be alert, and always expect a vehicle or a person to come out of nowhere. Because, well, it happens all the time.

Be prepared for:

  • Cyclists, mopeds and three-wheeled rickshaws going the wrong way in cycle lanes.
  • Cars using cycle lanes.
  • Cars turning without signaling.
  • People busting through red lights – even when the light has been red for several seconds.
  • Pedestrians walking out into the road without looking where they are going.
  • Pedestrians walking in cycle lanes.
  • Pedestrians crossing multi-lane roads.

Now you’ve got the basics down, take the rest of this advice on board and you’ll be equipped for taking on China’s busy urban road networks.


Always drive on the right

  1. All traffic should drive on the right hand side of the road, to the right of the central line. 
  2. If there is no center line, vehicles should drive in the center of the road, until there are two vehicles coming towards each other in opposite directions, at which point both vehicles should move to their right to let one another past, when safe to do so.
  3. Military vehicles can drive on both sides of the road and break red lights if their drivers see fit – though you’ll probably never see this happen in real life.



If you are cycling (or driving) in the middle of a road and the vehicle behind sounds the horn or indicates that it wishes to overtake, the law says you should as quickly as is safely possible move over to the right and allow it to overtake.


Using cycle lanes

  1. Chinese roads often have cycle lanes, separated from the outermost vehicle lane by a solid white line, a fence, or a curb. When cycle lanes (non-motorized vehicle lanes) are available, you should use them.
  2. Cycle lanes are often blocked by parked cars and street vendors, or clogged by slow moving or maneuvering vehicles. In this case, using the main road is preferable, particularly if your bike is travelling faster than some of the mopeds, motorbikes and three-wheelers on the road. 


Turning at junctions

  1. A right turn is simple, and – remember this, because it may be very different from your own country – is allowed even on a red light.
  2. When using a cycle lane and going straight across a junction, beware of vehicles on the adjacent road turning right and “stealing the road” or “forcing their way,” as the Chinese term it. 
  3. Vehicles turning left should give way to vehicles traveling straight in the oncoming lane and should wait for a safe gap in the traffic before crossing the oncoming lane.  
  4. When approaching any junction, beware of vehicles coming towards you on the wrong side of the road or from unexpected directions! Again – look around you absolutely everywhere, at all times.



The standard rules of priority seen elsewhere in the world don’t seem to apply in China. Instead, the vehicle that is driven most aggressively or that is larger is given priority, or else there is a road traffic accident. Safety, or accident avoidance, is not number one in China. Sadly, “number one” (the first one in the gap, or oneself) is number one in China.


Roundabouts/traffic circles

Roundabouts are not explained in Chinese driving test materials, apart from that drivers on the roundabout should give way to vehicles entering without priority. That makes for a ridiculously inefficient situation where only the vehicle that gets there first has priority, and even then only if it is bigger, travelling faster or with more “purpose.” Take care. Keeping to the outside of the roundabout is recommended.


Never run a red light

In China, it’s common to see vehicles continue to stream across a junction several seconds after a traffic light has turned red. Sometimes this is the result of traffic turning left at a junction being backed up, sometimes it’s simply because of idiocy. Meanwhile, you’ll see smaller vehicles (bikes, mopeds, rickshaws) and pedestrians trying to snake their way across junctions regardless of what color the lights are.


Stay alert even when you’re on a green light

Hopefully it’s becoming clear by now that anything can happen on Chinese roads. That means you could be heading straight through a green light, completely in line with the rules of the road, and a bike could come out of nowhere from a lane which is currently on a red light. Or you could be using a pedestrian crossing, only for a bike to come shooting out from between two rows of stationary cars.

Yep, there are some real idiots out there, a risk to themselves and to you. These people won’t look out for you, so look out for yourself by taking it slow and looking around before you accelerate through green lights.

As mentioned above, military vehicles can run through red lights if their driver sees fit; this almost never happens, but it is another issue to be aware of.


Don’t be afraid to use your horn

Don’t use it in anger, but do use it to signal your presence, particularly when passing bicycles and pedestrians. You will see people making unexpected movements (for example, pedestrians walking out into roads without looking where they are going), so using your horn can be an act of self-defence. You do not want to get into a traffic accident of any sort in China.

You will also notice that many long-tern drivers use their horns to signal when overtaking, especially when passing very large vehicles.


Beware of wet roads

China’s road surfaces, especially outside city centers, are often old and worn. When it rains, they become extremely slippery. Exercise caution.


Obtain a Chinese driving license – and always carry it

  1. Drivers of anything with a petrol engine, even a moped, must obtain a Chinese driving license – even an international license is not valid in China. The Chinese driving test involves a written test (only available in English in larger cities) and a short and relatively easy practical test. Foreigners with a current overseas license only need to take the written test.
  2. Drivers must carry the vehicle license for the vehicle they are driving, a valid driving license and Chinese drivers’ insurance (obtained from the same office as the safety inspection). See this article for more on car insurance in China.


Keep away from trucks

Trucks, especially construction waste trucks, have a notorious reputation for being driven by speeding, careless drivers. Many pedestrians or motorcyclists have been killed by these trucks. Keep a safe distance from them and leave enough room for overtaking if they are tailing you.


Never exceed the speed limit

  1. There are two names for speed detection devices: leida cesu qu - radar speed check zone – or chaosu shexiang – speed cameras.
  2. If you are exceeding the speed limit you can be fined up to 200 yuan for speeds over 10 km/h above the limit, but below 50 percent of it. If you are exceeding limits by over 50 percent, you can be fined up to 2,000 yuan.
  3. The speed limit varies for different types of roads in China – see the table below for a guide.

Type of road

City or intercity

Speed Limit



120 kph (75 mph)



100 kph (62 mph)

City Express Routes


100 kph (62 mph)

China National Highways


80 kph (50 mph)

China National Highways


40 kph (24 mph)

Fast Through Routes


80 kph (50 mph)

Dual Carriageway Roads


70 kph (43 mph)

Single Carriageway Roads


50 kph (31 mph)


Never drink and drive

Never drink drive (and while we’re at it, don’t drink and cycle either – that’s just as stupid). It’s already a challenge to drive or cycle when you are sober in a city in China. If caught, you can be fined heavily and banned from driving for anything from six months to five years. See this article for more on drinking and driving in China.


Keep away from elderly people

There have been reports about elderly people feigning injury and blackmailing cyclists and drivers, both foreign and Chinese, to pay for their “medical treatment.” If you get caught in a situation like this, you might be fined up to several thousand yuan, so be cautious. And whatever you do, do not get involved in arguments or incidences of “road rage” in China – as a foreigner, you’re far more likely to end up the loser.


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