Between the Lines | Right of Way vs First is Right

First Look! Motorcycling China on Harley-Davidsons

Riding in Los Angeles can range from frustrating to infuriating. It’s an ever-changing dynamic of drifting big rigs and various other speeding vehicles intent on constricting your path. But honestly, we do have a relatively civilized driving etiquette. We are taught to respect the “Right of Way,” and this driving rule sets in motion an entire series of social behaviors that translate subconsciously to common daily activities.

Driving etiquette differs in various parts of America, but generally, we stop at red lights, stay in our own lane and obey basic rules. In China however, there are just three road rules:

**#1. There Are No Rules

2. Size and Attitude matter

3. First Is Right**

The last one is key: China’s driving etiquette is based primarily on the concept called “First is Right”. Vehicles that have a slight lead and any access to a gap or opportunity have the de facto Right of Way. This etiquette elicits a simple philosophy; keep moving forward as fast as possible and try not to be hit or hit anything else. The art of motorcycling in China is akin to a live video game, and you’re the target. Constantly weaving through a swarm of oncoming bicycles, scooters, cars and buses, there’s always three objects moving toward an intercept trajectory.

Officially, China restricts all two wheel vehicles (from small scooters to large displacement Harley-Davidsons) from using elevated highways, expressways and even some inner ring roads. 80 cities across China have some sort of motorcycle restrictions, and some ban two-wheel vehicles completely.

After first visiting China in 1991, I left with vivid memories of thousands of bicycles crowding every roadway; remember, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that cars were even available to the general public. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined traversing those same lanes in a group of Harleys, but twenty years later, I became the only American journalist to attend the 3rd annual Chinese HOG Rally in Qingdao in 2011.

China now has 2.3 million miles of paved public roads, some of which I sampled while motorcycling through China with the Shanghai Harley Owners Group. For seven days we were relegated to secondary roads, where First is most assuredly Right. Weaving through tangled cities, we then segued onto rural dirt roads that traversed single-lane, temporary bridges meant only for bicycles and pedestrians.

Chinese routinely run red lights if there is no opposing traffic…and even if there is. The riders I rode with did so routinely, telling me it’s the green lights that scare them. Turn signals are NEVER used because that gives away your First Is Right advantage. Everyday travel is a cacophony of bizarre home-made machines, honking horns, buzzing scooters and overloaded bicycles rattling by on bumpy roads. It’s common for cars and busses to use their horns as a sonic plow, clearing bicyclists and pedestrians out of their way. They operate under the First is Right and Size/Attitude premise even in designated pedestrian crosswalks. If a car actually stops to let pedestrians pass, everyone else will freeze in confusion. We once witnessed a massive tour bus dominating a two lane road for miles, taking whatever space was necessary for however long he wanted, passing everything at breakneck speeds and forcing smaller vehicles off the road into ditches. We dared not pass him.

Without warning, roads can be closed for repair, routing you onto a temporary dirt path or a temporary bridge over the river. Four feet wide and forty feet long, this is often the only access to the other side—and it’s certainly not intended for a fully-loaded, 1000 pound Electra Glide. We would cross these with great trepidation, the bridge swaying high above the river, each one of us saying a silent prayer.

After several days of this dangerous dance, what seemed like sheer madness became an orchestrated ballet of rhythm and motion. My breathing relaxed, pulse slowed and instead of fixating on random moving targets, I saw the entire surreal scene unfolding like a lotus blossom before me. It became a beautiful, effortless ebb and flow of man, machine and motion. I had found Zen and the Art of motorcycling in China. In all this chaos I saw how well the Chinese navigate the space around them. Coming within inches of each other, they never flinched or showed anger; they were just going from point A to B. The Chinese I rode with are some of the most courteous, considerate and hospitable people I’ve ever met. I spent time with Yin Jianming and five generations of his family that all lived in the same house. They didn’t speak a lick of English nor I Mandarin, but we communicated just fine. They even invited me to their 30th wedding anniversary celebration.

Upon my return to Shanghai, I was presented with an honorary Shanghai HOG Chapter patch. In an impromptu ceremony, they toasted and beamed “Congratulations, you survived.” I have newfound friends and respect for the people and its culture, not to mention new respect for the durability of a Harley-Davidson. Deemed worthy to ride with this elite group of riders, I wear my patch proudly.

**Back In The U.S.A. **

I’ve since ridden hundreds of miles with the Shanghai HOG Chapter here in California. They handled their big Electra Glides with impressive skill through the twisties of Highway 74 or the precarious cliffs in Monterey on Highway 1. It’s our freeways that beguile them. Entering cautiously, they accelerate to a blazing 55 mph and freeze. Then they lock into the slow lane and become paralyzed. It’s completely inconceivable to them that four lanes of traffic could be moving in one direction at this rate of speed without the possibility of oncoming traffic. They fully expect a bus to pop out of the bushes and come barreling at them. As much as I tried to allay their fears, First is Right was too ingrained.

First is Right or Right of Way, what does this mean to you? Perhaps better preparation if you’re intent on travelling China. Perhaps a better understanding of cultural background and patience. The next time you see 25 motorcycles slogging along the slow lane, have restraint! They’re doing the best they can. They have no ill intent. When cagers make stupid moves, we motorcyclists react on instinct and move on. We haven’t the time for road rage. The seeming maniacs behind the bedlam of Chinese commuters also have no time for road rage; they’re simply getting from point A to B… as fast as possible.

The World Health Organization reported that the approximate number of fatalities on China’s roads is 250,000 each year. This study estimates that 45,000 people are injured and 680 killed on China’s roads each day. The study concluded that 92 percent of these accidents were due to bad driving skills.