Looking Both Ways

I was reading the book Nudge recently, and this passage struck me as odd:

> Visitors to London who come from the United States or Europe have a problem being safe pedestrians. They have spent their entire lives expecting cars to come at them from the left, and their Automatic System knows to look that way. But in the United Kingdom automobiles drive on the left-hand side of the road, and so the danger often comes from the right. Many pedestrian accidents occur as a result. The city of London tries to help with good design. On many corners, especially in neighborhoods frequented by tourists, the pavement has signs that say, “Look right!” (91)

I learned to drive in high school as a 15-year-old through a driver’s ed class. The only really vivid memory I have of that class occurred in a road test. The instructor was in the passenger seat, and he had his own brake. I was stopped at a red light.

When the light turned green, I confidently stepped on the gas. The instructor immediately broke hard, giving me quite a jolt. I glanced up to see that, yes, the light was green. I turned to the instructor, expecting an explanation for his mistake. But no, he was livid.

What are you doing?” he demanded.

“I’m going straight. The light’s green!” I replied.

“Did you look to see if there were any cars coming from the left or right?”

“No, but the light was green,” I insisted weakly.

You didn’t even look, and that can get you killed. I don’t care if the light is green. You still have to look.”

The key part of the Nudge passage was this: “who come from the United States or Europe.” Drivers from those countries have very rigid expectations for pedestrian behavior. Likewise, traffic patterns are so regular and predictable that pedestrians only really need to look one way when they cross the street, no matter what they supposedly learned in driver’s ed.

It’s easy to call traffic in countries like China or Mexico chaotic and uncivilized, and there’s clearly some progress to be made, but isn’t it better for pedestrians to be putting a bit more effort into protecting their lives? Isn’t it better for drivers to be a bit more alert for unpredictable pedestrian behavior?

At the very least, I’m pretty sure after living in China, I don’t have to worry too much about crossing the street in London.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Nobody follows any particular rules here but everybody looks out for themselves therefore accidents don’t happen as much as you would expect. Still accidents happen more than is acceptable in most countries and better enforcement would prevent many.

    A friend once told me that his driving instructor told him to simply keep focusing on the space ahead of his car.. this, for me sums up how people here drive and why pedestrians should be vigilant.

  2. also you can just pay some guy and let him do the theory test done for you.
    in china….money matters.

  3. The reason why we in the UK drive on the left side of the road is because of the Knights. Knights would walk on the left hand side of the road so if anybody was coming the opposite way their right ‘attacking’ hand could easily be utilised if needed. This caught on and hey presto. Not to sure why pretty much everyone else drives on the right…oh well thats as far as my side of road knowledge goes.

  4. TZM: I know about Czechoslovakia and Hungary driving on the left before WWI as well. When those countries were conquered by Hitler, right-wing government couldn’t allow people to keep this leftish habit.
    The story even goes further by noting that underground system in Budapest didn’t switch, unlike the road system. And that’s why the people of Hungary are right oriented on the surface, but deep inside, they are left oriented.

  5. Here in China I find it’s necessary to look not only left and right but forwards and back and up and down and all around…I simply do not have enough eyes! Hubby and I often cross the road hand in hand and looking in different directions so if one sees danger he can pull the other one to safety!

    I’ve been especially aware of the danger recently: an American friend was killed in a traffic accident here in Haikou last week. Our little community has renewed our vows to never ever ever motorcycle home drunk and helmetless.

  6. christopher Says: January 19, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I’d agree that a healthy amount of wariness when walking around in busy city streets is warranted, but I’ve also grown comfortable to the patterns of traffic in the U.S. I can walk down any street in the financial district of S.F. with only a cursory glance to the side, even when people are jay-walking en masse. The traffic patterns are so regular that few people exist outside them, so the chance for an accident is dramatically lower.

    I’ve spent some time in India on a few occasions, and although Delhi traffic is invigorating to say the least, I prefer it my way.

  7. You write “The key part of the Nudge passage was this: “who come from the United States or Europe.” Drivers from those countries have very rigid expectations for pedestrian behavior.”

    I don’t think the author was trying to imply that drivers have rigid expectation for pedestrian behavior, as much as pedestrians having rigid expectations of where cars are coming from. on crossroads though, if you’re stopped at a red light and there’s a street ahead perpendicular to you, cars can miss the red light and pass in front of you on both directions – hence the need to look both ways before going ahead.

    so this post confuses me a bit, i don’t think i get your point. :/

  8. Habits die hard, sometimes literally. Every time I’m in Hong Kong I come pretty close to stepping right into the path of some oncoming truck. Living in China isn’t much help – if anything it insulates me to lower my guard because things are less chaotic.

  9. Your driving instructor sounds very much like both my driving instructor and my father (who was a tour bus driver for many years): When driving you must be absolutely, and actively, aware of everything going on around you. (how’s that for alliteration?) I didn’t really understand what they meant until I came to China, then the one time I went back to New Zealand I found myself intensely aware of everything happening on the road- I was so used to China’s densely crowded and chaotic streets I was easily able to keep very close tabs on absolutely everything every driver on the road in Wellington in rush hour was up to.

    And I have to say that our driving instructors and my father were right- such awareness of everything going on around you, including the speeds, directions and attitudes of drivers behind, above and below you, makes you and your passengers (would it be any surprise that my father would emphasise putting the safety and comfort of your passengers above anything else?) much, much safer. I mean, I found myself being able to react to incidents before they happened, therefore being able to put myself into a safe situation before that safety was needed.

    So, yeah, like your driving instructor said obliquely, but in a context-specific way: Check every possibility before you act.

    (which is also a lesson playing chess will teach you)

  10. Ji Feng Jing Cao Says: January 19, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    @ Nicki:

    Sorry about your friend. But I have to say: haven’t you heard the saying in China about motorcycles? “You buy’em fast. You ride’em fast and You die fast!”

    As a Chinese I’m not proud of the traffic systems and the drivers here. But it’s probably mostly because cars are not yet an integral part of the ordinary Chinese lives and thank God for that! It is changing for the worse, I know but at least we haven’t got people walking their dogs in their SUVs… yet.

    My dad is a ruthless driver. I still remember all those traumatic years I have to endure in high school when he used to drive me to school every morning. Surprisingly, he’s never had any bad accidents as far as I know. There was this one time when he hit the bumper of the car in front while taking a sharp turn to switch lanes(lol), he went out quickly and covered the damaged bit with snow from the guy’s boot and said nothing had happened. LOL. It’d always give me a heart attack when he used to go into the opposite lane to overtake. I guess that’s where my mom got her heart problems from. But her constant backseat driving wasn’t of much comfort either!

  11. I nearly got run over in the UK on my last trip to the rainy isle, years of being a pedestrian or driving in the China has changed my ‘automatic’ senses to look left before crossing.

  12. Looking from another angle, I’ve heard about a strange accident last september at a small intersection in french Brittany.
    Two british drivers were driving 2 british cars.
    The first driver thought that, when in France, french rules should apply.
    The second driver thought that, with 2 british cars, british rules should apply.
    My so-called “normative continental-European formated mind” found this accident so “exotic” and outdated.

  13. I know it may still take a very long time, but like other things before it, I think some day, the world will end up adopting a universal traffic system when the handful of countries that drive on the left will join the rest of the world, and when the US will go metric. I think that these would be other indications of a more mature humanity when we don’t insist on the old ways when we can simplify our lives instead.

  14. I just love China because I biked everywhere. 🙂

  15. Drive’s ed, when I passed through it (a LONG time before you), was much the same. In addition, I’ve had motorcycles for most of my life since I as 15. So I have, I thought, a rather deeply ingrained habit of looking both ways, even forward and backward, particularly on a bike.

    Even so, the first time I went to London in the early 70s, I found myself faltering at the curb a few times while walking the streets…traffic naturaly comes from the left in my world order. I’d been in China maybe one year before my first visit to Hong Kong and, yet again, I had the same experience.

    My first year in China I bought a bicycle and loved the ease of getting around. I’m in my fourth year here and bought a motorcycle recently, just a putter…and enjoy it for the same reason, but more so since it gives me a bigger range to explore. I’ve also driven cars here.

    In general, I agree with Nicki (No. 5)…whether you’re on two feet, two wheels or four wheels…it’s best to appear like one of those bobble-heads when navigating the streets of China. In fact, now that I think of it, seven eyes MIGHT just about cover it. Two in front, one in back, one on each side, one on top and one under your chin.

    For what it’s worth, despite China’s somewhat belated entry into personal locomotion, I read recently that it has the highest traffic-related death count of any country in the world.

  16. But WHY are the rules of the road in recently-developed nations so different than in the more-developed countries?

    My theory:
    In USA for example, even relatively poor people have been driving cars for generations already, so there is a bit more of a sense of equality. Having a car never meant that you were “somebody”, at least not for the last 70 years or so.

    But in Taiwan and China, and other places I’m sure, it meant (until quite recently) that your were a big shot. No such thing as “yeild” or “right of way”.

    It’s simple, the guy in the biggest (or most expensive) vehicle has the right of way (in any traffic situation), and it’s up to pedestrian peons or slackers on bicycles to scatter if they don’t want to get creamed.

    Also, no such thing as “right” or “wrong” in an objective sense. Each traffic encouter is open to interpretation based on: who is in the biggest hurry? who is more important? who is most daring?

    Also, the best way to get from A to B is whatever way is nearest, regardless of rules, so riding scooters the wrong way on a two-way street is perfectly understandable.

    And if there’s an accident, who are the police going to listen to? The cyclist on the asphalt, or the guy with the BMW?

  17. When teaching the idiom ‘Rule of thumb’ to my Chinese students, I’d always use this story: In the US, the rule is look left-right-left. In British systems, look right-left-right. In China as a foreigner, look left-right-left-right-left-right-left-right-left-right-left-right until across the street. After you’ve been here a while, do it like the locals, and look straight ahead.

  18. Check out this story.

    They are removing stoplights in some places in order to reduce accidents.

  19. Jeffrey D Says: January 26, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    They now have these signs on the road, in Chinese, in Hong Kong. Presumably for mainland visitors.

  20. There is a good deal of literature which suggests that adding obstacles and unpredictability to roads actually decreases accidents (and fatalities) because it causes people to actively pay more attention. I’ve tried applying this logic to China as well in an attempt to justify what appears at first to be merely chaos. However, everything goes out the window when you compare the traffic fatalities per mile driven in China to a country like the US or England. Last I checked, you were 8 times more likely to die per mile driven in China than in the US.

    I think the main reason driving in China is so chaotic is that it’s basically an entire country of 16 year olds behind the wheel. Whereas, most drivers in western countries have years of experience driving, for many Chinese, they are on their first car, and have only recently begun driving. To see what I mean, take a spin to your nearest high school parking lot. (This probably wouldn’t apply to most Europeans who have to be 18 to drive.)

  21. OECD figures, 2004, rate China with 600 road deaths and 42,000 injuries every DAY. There’s a war going on out there, but your average Chinese is sure it can’t happen to them. Now there are 70 million electric bikes in China : swift, silent and deadly. No helmets, and at night no lights. Yeah, it is partly a matter of generational education, but something more is going on. In most East Asian cultures, if you are not a family member or if you don’t have some kind of personal relationship, you don’t exist. People will walk right into you on the footpath. There is hardly ever eye contact. Service (joke) in shops often follows the same pattern. By Western custom norms, public behaviour in countries like China, South Korea etc. tends to be incredibly rude and selfish. Of course, they aren’t thinking about it in that way, but for an outsider it takes some getting used to.

  22. Jamieson Says: March 10, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Nearly got smeared by a taxi in my first 6 weeks or so in Shanghai/Suzhou. So used to checking for passing cars, from one direction only – in Australia. That habit got old, very quickly

    As the previous commenters advised, I look both ways, even when crossing a bike lane.

    It’s so nice when I go back to Oz, want to walk across the street on a “Zebra” (alternate broad white lines, 90 degrees to the path of traffic) pedestrian crossing – I stand there and drivers actually stop, in both lanes of trafic to let you whistle as you dawdle across the road.

    It was a bit of a shock when I went back last year, you know – civilised driving, respect for pedestrians crossing at legitimate crossing points.

    If I’m riding my e-bike, I never dare leave the apartment without my bike helmet.

    Got knocked off the device by some d**khead in a Toyota driving the wrong way, as I went around a blind corner in the carpark at the front of a nearby bank in Suzhou.

    I’m on the ground, slightly sore elbow, bike is on its side and the guy springs out : “Sorry, Sorry”. I swear loudly, the F word, then “It’s OK”.

    Pick up the bike and continue.

    Helmets, brothers & sisters. 90 kuai. Much better than a brain injury or worse !

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