The Left Turn in China

Mr. Xi has moved Chinese politics significantly to the left since 2012. Party theory and Party loyalty are again of supreme importance, and fear is again daily fare for many people.

But another left turn is more important for daily life in China, and that is the traffic left turn signal at stop lights. The theory and practice of left turn signalization in China needs immediate attention. Short explanation follows.

American engineering practice

No need to beat around the bush on this. Standard traffic engineering practice in the US is for the left turn signal in a multilane, two-way intersection to turn green before the straight-proceeding green light. Left turn light first, then green. I think this is an American universal. 


American driving practice

Left turning traffic clears, or mostly clears, before the forward green light. This makes it safer for people just going forward because there are only forward movements for drivers to expect - except for that last guy waiting in the intersection to turn left.  Occasionally, someone in a go-forward lane will try to sneak a place ahead in the left turn lane, but that is considered quite outre. Ostracism, if not gunplay, can result.


Driving practice in China

A few oddities -

There is the occasional bicycle or motorbike going the wrong way on a three or four lane (each direction) 50 mph arterial.  Its less dangerous for all if the motorbike is sticking to the furthest left or right lane while going the wrong way, but this cannot be taken for granted. It might be coming at you down the middle of the road.

My colleague Scott Peters notes that the Chinese government wastes a lot of money by painting lane stripes on streets. Drivers ignore them in any case.

There is the driving on sidewalks and the blocking-in of cars in the shopping mall parking lot and the cars driving the wrong way up or down the parking garage ramps. All de rigueur, and theoretically fixable with some police presence - but that does not happen anywhere I have ever seen. In any case, these are transgressions by drivers.


Chinese engineering practice

The more serious left-turn problems are caused by government traffic engineers directly. The problems take two forms. Bear with me on this.

Problem 1 - standard engineering practice in China is for the left turn signal to come after the green go-forward light (at the end of the cycle);

Problem 2 - occasionally the left turn signal ignores the fact that oncoming traffic has a green light. Say what? Read that again.


Problem 1 - Stealing a march on the left turn lane

This is the same problem as that which would cause ostracism in America, but made far more common and serious by poor signal timing. Picture a four way intersection with left turn-only lanes and signals.

This problem is ubiquitous in China. Eager prospective left-turners use the green light to pile up two or three lanes of left-turning cars in front of and blocking the left turn lane. These cars of course have to go first when the left turn signal comes on. Often, there are so many cars attempting this maneuver that at least one, perhaps two, of the go-forward lanes are blocked by cars piling up to turn left. That way, cars cannot go forward on the green light unless they maneuver to the right around the eager illegal prospective left-turners.  

At the left turn signal, all the left-turners jockey for position in achieving the one or two lanes on the perpendicular street. The car in the most dangerous position is the first car in the legal left turn lane.  When the signal comes, that driver must contend with the others piled up ahead and blocking him. The driver in the second car in the actual left turn lane will occasionally get anxious as well, and – this is good - steal a march to the inside of the first turning car. That is my favorite move. The first driver never sees that car coming on his inside. It is a blind side hit – or not, but still a blind side move.

These problems are of course fixable by putting the left turn signal before the go-forward green light. But nevermind. There is one added element of interest to this left-turn-signal-last sequencing. 

When there are a lot of vehicles turning left, it is easy to create a traffic jam of left-turning cars – if, for example, some of the left turners experience some problem just as they complete the turn – some car moving into or out of a driveway, a truck blocking a lane. Since no driver in China has ever been known to yield to circumstances except in the last moment, you can easily get two or three quarter-circle rows of left-turners stopped in flagrante delicto blocking all the traffic from the perpendicular direction once their own light turns green. Nice. 


My Way on the highway

Left turn problem 2 means that signalized left-turners and the oncoming traffic have a simultaneous green light. This is a bit of a “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition” problem. 

You’d think this problem 2 would be a grievous mistake in traffic signal programming, done by some young traffic engineer who didn’t properly think through the timing and the movements.

That might be true. A recent college graduate is unlikely to own a car, so he lacks experience of driving. He has the traffic design manuals, and plenty of access to instructions for programming the software for light timing and sequencing. But this stupid and really dangerous mistake is far more common than you would think. And not just in small towns.  I have experienced this in Hangzhou, in three different locations, and in Wuhan. Mixing left turning cars – with a left turn signal – and oncoming proceeding cars – with a green light – should be a rookie mistake that is corrected quickly. But the correction doesn’t happen, at least not for months. In two cases I can think of, not for years. 

This phenomenon does have a traffic calming effect.  Those who know the procedure proceed cautiously, since no one knows who will prevail in the cross-traffic – except for the more insistent driver who is unafraid of conflict. 

The novice driver at this corner is most likely to have an accident, since the novice driver thinks the signal they follow provides them with exclusive access to their move.



There is an additional traffic engineering wrinkle. China has done a very good job accommodating the huge number of bikes and motorbikes on the streets. In many places there is a segregated and physically separated right lane for two and three wheel vehicles. Excellent idea – except for those bikes and motorbikes turning left and competing with the cars two or three or four lanes to the left doing the same thing. Motorbike drivers in China are fearless – or oblivious. In any case, they are frequently injured. It might help to give the motorbikes their own left turn signal, but there is just no reason to expect compliance.


Learning curve

These common roadway confusions are not discussed in the driver’s ed manuals. The manuals pay a lot of attention to understanding the meaning different colors and striping on curbs, and meaning of traffic policeman hand signals, which in five years of daily driving in Hangzhou, I never saw used once. But those are book learning, the theory of driving. The theory is near useless in practice. Hobbes would recognize the state of nature on Chinese streets. Even if not solitary, life on the streets is nasty and brutish and occasionally short.

Let the driver beware.