As an American accustomed to cruising through the winding freeways of Los Angeles, adapting to the roads of China’s capital city was a rather daunting experience. For this reason, I have put together this guide of what to expect during your first time behind the wheel in the PRC.
First and foremost, China is one of the few developed that countries that does NOT permit visitors with foreign driver’s licenses to operate a motor vehicle. Despite this, you can apply in advance for a temporary driver’s license and exchange it for your actual driver’s license, alongside a sizeable amount of RMB.
Just like LA, Beijing traffic does not abide to the typical rush hour schedule, and traffic is to be expected any time of the day. Traffic at midnight, two in the afternoon on a weekday, or the peak of rush hour are near indistinguishable. To help clear the mass congestion, each Beijing-registered license plate cannot enter the roads inside the 5th Ring Road one day out of the working week, dictated by the last numeral on the license tag. Reminders of what tags are and are not permitted inside the 5th Ring Road are posted regularly on most local news outlets. Additionally, if your car is not registered in Beijing, you are not permitted to drive inside the 5th Ring Road between 06:00 to 09:00 and 16:00 to 20:00 any day of the week.
Traffic rules do exist, although they are seldom followed. Driving on the shoulder and disregarding pedestrians are common, if not normal. Which driver has the right of way is determined by defacto law based on the size and weight of your vehicle (don’t mess with trucks and busses), or more commonly whether or not whose front end got into an intersection first.
Despite this, the police and highway patrolmen are very strict about certain isses. In particular, Drunk Driving and Speeding is highly policed. The BAC limit in China is 0.03 ABV (the U.S. is 0.04 ABV), and random sobriety checkpoints are scattered throughout the city any night of the week. The sobriety checkpoints require everyone to blow into the same tube, albeit without their lips touching the straw.
There are speeding surveillance cameras everywhere. To be aware of their locations, download the phone app ‘Baidu’ to warn you if you are approaching a speed camera. Speeding tickets are received via SMS text message to the mobile phone number associated with your License Plate.
In conclusion… take the subway, taxi, bus, hire a driver opposed to driving in Beijing if you can. As stressful as driving in Beijing may be, it is still much better than the chaotic roads of the Chinese countryside. People drive unpredictably in all corners of the world, but even more so in Beijing. You just have to be alert at all times, and beware for aggressive drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and who-knows-what else.