Shanghai Traffic Safety Tips

If you are a Shanghai expat who has lived here for more than a few weeks, you probably have already discovered the dangers of Shanghai traffic.

However, for the newcomers and those who haven’t dared to venture out onto the streets yet some facts and advice might be helpful.

As of 2012 there were about 2.2 million registered vehicles in Shanghai, a figure that is growing about 10 percent each year.

The amount of vehicles regularly using the streets in Shanghai could be much higher, as many people living here register their cars in nearby cities to avoid the high Shanghai license plate registration fee.

Cars without a local Shanghai license plate are not allowed to drive on the elevated expressways during rush hours, but are free to use other roads.

Growing Safety Problems

Shanghai is the only city in China that uses an auction system to control the number of new cars on the road. In March 2013 the average auction price for one of the 9,000 available monthly new plates hit a record high of approximately RMB 92,000 (US$15,000).

The succeeding few months saw the government enforcing lower auction prices, but the average price in July 2013 was still about US$12,500.

In the two years of 2011 and 2012 the Shanghai government reaped almost US$2 billion in revenue from the sale of new license plates. This money is used for various services including constructing public transportation, purchasing new public vehicles, providing senior citizens with free public transit rides, as well as constructing and maintaining public transport infrastructure.

Vital Shanghai Traffic Safety Tips

  • You will quickly learn that cars are definitely the king of the road in Shanghai traffic, while pedestrians are just moving obstacles for drivers to get around as quickly as possible. Chinese drivers will tell you that if they had to be polite and yield to pedestrians they would never be able to move forward, which is actually quite true due to the large numbers of pedestrians everywhere.
  • Always remember that just because the pedestrian light turns green does not mean cars will stop and wait for you.
  • Drivers rarely stop before turning right in China, even on a red light or to yield to pedestrians walking in either direction. Oncoming traffic turning left into your crosswalk will also not yield to you, so keep looking both directions as you continue to cross the street.
  • Zebra crossings do exist in China, but don’t serve much purpose, as drivers will rarely stop when you are near one or indeed inside one, so never take this for granted.
  • Many car drivers in China are quite inexperienced, as Chinese tend to buy their first car and get a driver’s license much later in life than Westerners.

One Shanghai expat, Shaun Rein, founder and Managing Director of the China Market Research Group, said:

"I think everybody knows that it's a problem. It's scary out there. Part of it is the rules. When I took my driver's test, it said, when you are turning: do you, A, let pedestrians go first in a cross-walk, B, do you just keep driving, or, C, do you make sure you don't hit them.

"Now, the answer is C, something to that effect, just make sure you don't hit them. But there is too much leeway to what exactly that means. I think they need more definite laws. Like, no turning or they have the right of way."

Tougher Rules on the Way

Shanghai traffic authorities toughened traffic regulations in 2013. Drivers running red lights now have six demerit points deducted, up from three points. A driver who gets 12 points will have their license suspended.

Many more surveillance cameras are also being installed at intersections around town to catch people running red lights. These rule changes were in response to almost 50 people being killed due to jaywalking or running red lights in the first 5 months of that year. 

Apart from cars, Shanghai traffic is also full of motor bikes and electric scooters. Many of these drivers do not need or have driver's licenses, and seldom follow Shanghai traffic rules. Sometimes they will slow down when running a red light to look for cars, but often they just drive right through, expecting the cars to slow down and let them pass.

Based on the law of the jungle, they certainly don't worry too much about pedestrians, so be aware of them before stepping onto the crosswalk.

Many Shanghai expats have gotten in on the act and begun to buy electric scooters themselves. Most prefer to buy larger scooters than those available in local stores, often through Online retailers.

It is worth noting that many of the larger models are actually illegal to drive here, as they are too fast to qualify for an electric scooter license plate. The national regulation only allows scooters that go less than 20 kilometers an hour and weigh less than 40 kilos to drive on the roads.

Some Online scooter dealers will provide a fake license plate, or tell you a license is not needed as you will rarely be checked. If checked, however, Shanghai traffic police will confiscate the scooter.

Many Shanghai pedestrians do not follow Shanghai traffic rules themselves; crossing the street when the pedestrian light is red and jaywalking everywhere. In 2012 there were more than 263,000 cases, or about 720 per day, involving punishments for jaywalking and other traffic violations.

Jaywalkers and those running red lights are levied fines between RMB 5 (83 US cents) and RMB 50 (US$ 8.11), not exactly a huge deterrent.

The Shanghai traffic police have also started to try out a new punishment for jaywalkers and scooters running red lights, many who often refuse to pay the fine even when caught. Instead of the fine, they can also now choose to read newspaper articles about traffic accidents, before being allowed to continue on their way.

Although it sounds amusing, this is a serious problem. According to Shanghai traffic police, 48 people were been killed and 206 injured in more than 200 accidents in the first 5 months of 2013, involving either jaywalking or scooters and mopeds running red lights. Moreover, an expat riding an electric scooter was killed in a traffic accident in Shanghai in 2012.

Shanghai Traffic: Keep Your Cool

It is quite common for Shanghai expats to get very frustrated and downright angry when cars or motorbikes almost run them over while crossing the street. After they catch their breath, they are often tempted to teach the person a lesson in etiquette.

The US consulate mentions several bad altercations resulting from such cases and strongly recommends you against taking the law into your own hands.

In order to not get too frustrated, try to remember these points:

  1. Don't take it personally, they treat all people the same way and are more likely to run over their own compatriots than you, as long as you are careful.
  2. Driving etiquette from Western countries is not the norm in most parts of the world. Many foreigners from other countries can tell you traffic in their country is just as dangerous, if not more so, than China.
  3. Although it seems chaotic, accidents do not happen as much as you would think. This is because most Chinese drivers are quite skilled at swerving in and out of traffic at very close proximity without actually hitting anybody.
  4. The above being said, still about 1,000 people died in traffic accidents in Shanghai in 2010, and more than 65,000 in all of China, with many more injured. The fatality and injury rates due to traffic accidents in China have actually been steadily going down since 2004, when nearly 90,000 people were killed. Please remember, therefore, it is not worth it to risk your own health and safety by expecting or demanding Western driving etiquette in China.
  5. In the end, as cultural trainers will often tell you, driving is about getting from point A to point B, and although we might not agree how the Chinese get there, they still get there, so just relax and understand their system. Who knows, you might bump into a new friend or two. Just like a happy new couple in Chongqing. After a man helped take care of a woman he had run down with his motor bike they fell in love, got married and had a child!

If you want to drive yourself, you also need to get used to many other common driving habits in China, including:

  • Tailgating
  • Turning the turn-signal on only when the car actually starts to turn
  • Switching lanes without looking in the rear-view mirror

You can check out this site for information on applying for a driver’s license in Shanghai.

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