I have a completely new perspective on driving in China. On my last trip in November 2006, I concluded that there is just a chaotic mess of drivers versus pedestrials versus bicyclist. On this second trip, and seeing exactly the same pattern in Beijing, Yinchuan, Guilin, and Yangshou, I have concluded 2 things: 1. this is the way it works in China, and 2. it works in China.
Taken from front seat of van, which is passing the bus on the left. The van is in the middle lane. Note oncoming traffic on left.
Let me explain. As soon as you get in a car (and we do not drive in China, it would be suicide), you see a lot of close calls. Cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles are all weaving and dodging each other in a mess of close calls and chicken. I have never seen a stop sign, but there are occasional traffic lights - but rare. It's really spooky when you drive down the street and see buses and trucks suddenly in your lane, but miraculously get back into their own lane without incident. The first time you see this you figure you are dead, as you would be in the US. But after witnessing the same thing time after time with no incident, you realize that something is going on here.
What I realized is that since everyone is doing this, it works because everyone is actually looking out for all the others. Someone cuts you off, you slow down, no big deal. You cut someone off, not big deal, they slow down and avoid you. It all evens out at the end of the day. People are actually patient in this big mess of traffic.
In an aside here, we witnessed the same behavior on a river cruise with maybe 5 or 6 cruise boats passing and weaving and missing each other by feet on the river. Go figure. And these were boats that could hold several hundred people, not just little boats that could manuveur quickly. It's just the way they drive here.
We even did a bike ride that included a few miles in this traffic. If I tried cutting in front of cars in the US, I would probably get knocked off the bike and die. Here, a car just slows and avoids you. After a few of these, I gained confidence that I could cut off or swerve around cars without any problem. By the way, no one on bicycles wears helmets, and motor-bike drivers wear 1960's helmets at most. And horn-honking on the road is a ritual that could be a warning, a greeting, or just a defective vehicle.
So I concluded that this scheme works because everyone here knows the deal. You swerve, you dodge, you play chicken, you honk your horn, you cut some off, you get cut off. But the great thing is that traffic moves, and there are few incidents. We have not yet seen anyone injured, and amazingly, there is no road rage! I have not witnessed one case of a driver yelling or getting angry. No flipped fingers (that may not even be the sign in China). And police tend to be scarce, so there are few tickets written. That's because this mess works.
We even witnessed little kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old running into traffic knowing that they will not get knocked over unless they are not careful. This skill starts at an early age here.
So what we have is a system that seems incredibly foreign to us (Americans), but works well in China. Do not try this at home, you will cause major road rage!