Growing up one of my favorite Atari games was Frogger. I thoroughly enjoyed strategizing to get that little frog safely across the multiple lanes of traffic. Little did I know, thirty years later, I would find myself playing a similar game—only the frog was me! The traffic would be on the streets of China and somehow the linear and predictable paths of vehicles would not apply!
I am pretty sure that traffic rules exist in China. However, we found that either rules are not followed, or the rules are just so different from the rules of the road in Western cultures, that it feels like there are no rules!
Stay in Your Lane?
Although there might be painted lines on some roads, the lines really do not carry much meaning. Cars and scooters will fill in any available space, turn across traffic, and pass as needed nearly anywhere on the road. It is almost amazing that we did not witness any accidents!
I think of a car horn as an accessory that’s used infrequently, usually when you’re unhappy with another driver. Not so in China. The horn is a must have! It is used almost constantly. It is used to notify someone that the vehicle behind them wants to pass. It is used to notify pedestrians and scooters that a car is present. It is used when a car comes up on a blind corner to notify oncoming traffic of the car’s presence. You hear horns honking so regularly, that you almost become immune to the sound!
We’re accustomed to pedestrians having the right away in any situation…especially in a crosswalk. Cars must yield to pedestrians, right? However, we quickly learned to NEVER assume that you, as a pedestrian, have the right of way in China.
Flashing walk signs don’t seem to carry much bearing in Chinese culture, so you will find locals wandering their way into the street and crossing traffic one lane at a time as cars flash by in both directions. This would most definitely be dangerous and illegal in the U.S., but we soon learned that if you need to cross the street you’d better either look for an over/under-pass or follow the lead of the locals.
Attempting to Cross The Street
At one point, when walking from the subway station to our hotel in Beijing, we waited patiently for the walk signal to turn green so we could cross an intersection. When the walk sign appeared, I stepped into the crosswalk and started across the street. I looked left only to see a car quickly approaching me, honking! I found this baffling. Don’t I have the right away? We soon learned that unlike Western cultures, pedestrians do not have the right of way in China! So if you find yourself needing to cross a street, do so very carefully—even if you have a walking sign!
On another occasion, we found ourselves needing to cross a street during rush hour traffic in Xi’an. There were no underpasses or overpasses, just six lanes of taffic; three in each direction. Our only option was to engage in a game of human Frogger! It was by far one of the scariest games of Frogger because I dindn’t have three lives. Most of it was a blur really. I may have seen my life flash in front of my eyes!
At one point I remember stepping into traffic, dodging a couple cars, and then looking right and seeing a large bus quickly approaching me. My heart skipped a beat as my pace switched into an all out sprint. Crossing the street in China was much more of an adventure than I thought it would be and I’m glad that we escaped without being splatted!
If you’re lucky, some intersections have a traffic warden that tries to maintain order. From what we saw, they were only somewhat effective as scooters and people still squeeze their way through. Honestly, I think the wardens are there more to benefit the flow of traffic than to protect pedestrians. The wardens hold large crowds back to allow cars through. If they weren’t there, the large crowds would simply clog the intersections with a steady flow of people.