In major city roads traffic is often congested, even on the myriad of city ring roads (except those on the outer fringes of the city). Beijing comes in at the worst (comparatively), despite five ring roads and nine arterial expressways. Shanghai ranks relatively better, with elevated expressways and tunnels.
The congestion is far more complex than that in Western countries. Bicycles swarm everywhere. In many areas, there are also lots of motorcycles. In the smaller cities, anything from tractors to bullock carts may turn up.
China National Highways
Beijing municipality is the only administrative unit where tolls are not charged for China National Highways. Elsewhere, though, these are toll roads on the national, and sometimes on the provincial level as well. G-level (national) China National Highways are a pleasure to drive on. The speed limit is 80 km/h but cars often zip at speeds over 100 km/h, thanks to the relative absence of speed detection cameras.
S-level (provincial) highways may be less smooth to drive on.
Unlike national highways, sometimes there is no central reservation or road separation, and you may be limited to one lane per direction.
X-level (county) highways are not necessarily the worst to drive on, but they are challenging. More challenging are township-level highways. Some of these roads may be in areas officially cordoned off to the visiting foreigner.
Expressways and express routes in China are a godsend, with traffic signs in both English and Chinese, emergency facilities, service areas, sufficient filling stations, plenty of exits, high speed limits, and the relative lack of traffic jams. Although in English, both express routes and expressways are referred to as "expressways", their Chinese counterparts are named differently. "Express routes" are written , whereas expressways are written as . The idea is that express routes liaise inside of cities and larger municipalities, whereas expressways do the national work, liaising from one centre to another.
Express routes have lower speed limits than expressways. In Beijing, a few expressways have speed limits below express routes: these are the Jingjintang Expressway (Beijing segment) and the Jingha Expressway (Beijing segment). They are clocked at 90 km/h.
Chinese traffic does seem to have rules. They generally manage to avoid accidents. However, the rules are quite different from those in other countries. To a foreigner, traffic looks chaotic and many drivers insane or suicidal. Do not assume that Chinese drivers will follow any rule you know.
Right of way
The concept of right-of-way does not apply, or at least is very different here.
Making a left turn in front of oncoming vehicles is quite normal. Those vehicles will not stop. They will just swerve around you, even if this means going across the center line and forcing whatever is behind you to swerve around them. Cars do not stop for pedestrians, only swerve around them or honk at them to clear the way. Motorcycles and bicycles often do the same on sidewalks.
Few drivers bother with switching on the indication lights when they are changing lanes. Many will not look to see if the lane is clear before changing lanes; cars behind them will swerve or stop to avoid them.
Overtaking on the right
This, despite being illegal, is very common in China.
Lorry drivers may not bother with switching on lights during the night. You should. Switch on your headlamps—all lights on, in fact, if there is no other vehicle approaching you.