Staying safe in the face of driving ambitions

Updated: 2016-09-30 07:38

By Cao Yin(China Daily)

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A growing number of Chinese tourists are planning road trips in the United States this year, but differences in traffic laws and driving etiquette pose potential pitfalls. Cao Yin reports.

As the National Day holiday approaches and a growing number of Chinese prepare to take road trips in the United States, potential visitors are being urged to learn about US traffic laws and the country's auto culture.

The comments come after four Chinese tourists from Guangdong province were killed in July during a self-drive road trip in Arizona, when the driver failed to heed a stop sign and their vehicle was hit by a bus.

Failure to understand US road rules could potentially result in accidents, lawsuits, injuries and even death, according to experts.

Trips to the US during the "golden week" of China's seven-day National Day holiday, which starts on Oct 1, have become major money-spinners for Chinese tourism agencies, and self-driving road trips are becoming increasingly popular.

Staying safe in the face of driving ambitions

Last year, 2.67 million Chinese visited the US as bilateral tourist trips hit 4.76 million, and the number is expected to rise to more than 5 million by the end of the year, according to the National Tourism Administration.

Meanwhile, statistics provided by China Youth Travel Service, one of the country's largest tourism agencies, show that the number of Chinese planning to visit the US during the holiday has risen 30 percent from the same period last year.

About 45 percent of Chinese tourists to the US prefer not to travel as part of a group, and about 37 percent of them undertake unsupervised road trips, according to CYTS.

"Of all the tourist spots overseas, the US is the most popular destination," said Xu Xiaolei, a CYTS spokesman. "With a better highway environment and automobile culture, the US is a dream destination for driving enthusiasts."

Ge Mu, assistant president of Caissa Travel Management, an international tourism agency, said a growing number of clients are inquiring about driving holidays in the US.

Greater ease of travel

The boom in Chinese tourism to the US has been triggered by the rise in living standards and the introduction of bilateral 10-year, multiple entry visas, which make it easier for Chinese citizens to travel to the country, she said.

As an example, Ge cited one client who has traveled overseas 20 times in the past four years, and has taken advantage of the relaxed visa policy to visit the US seven times.

"When travelers are given more time in the US, most prefer to explore the country by themselves, especially on self-driving road trips that allow them to discover scenic spots that group tours can't reach," she said.

In addition, car rental companies have flourished at home and abroad, which help Chinese tourists to verify that their driving licenses are acceptable overseas, recommend routes and provide translation services.

In July, Beijing resident Liu Jing took his family on a road trip to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and the West Coast highways in a car he rented in China.

"All the booking and rental procedures were easy because the car rental website I selected is in Chinese. First I registered, and then I submitted my license," he said. "Highways in the US are long, which makes them ideal for self-driving trips, and it's OK if you take the wrong route, because you can use GPS to find your destination," said the 42-year-old who works in the import-export sector.

He was still excited about the trip: "I enjoyed the feeling that I controlled the travel and routes instead of following other people."

Cao Longbo found it easy to rent a car when he arrived in the US. "Airports have a host of car rental companies for tourists to choose from," said the 37-year-old software engineer, who traveled around the US by car in 2013. "Visitors can rent a car with a credit card, and it's a good idea to rent GPS or download a map before the journey, even if it's a little more expensive."

Song Qianqian is also a road trip enthusiast. "I want to set my own pace and see scenery or cultures I'm interested in," said the 31-year-old who studied in the US before returning to China to work for a financial company in Beijing.

During her study period, Song drove to several cities, such as Orlando, Atlanta and Maryland. Her most memorable US driving experience was a 17-hour journey from Austin to Phoenix, crossing three states.

"Young For You, a song by Gala, played again and again on my car's tape player, while trees, deserts and cactuses passed by. It was really fantastic," she said.

"When I was tired at night, I stopped the car and climbed onto the roof. Lying on my back and looking at stars quickly made me forget my driver's fatigue."

Song believes self-driving tours will become an increasingly important contributor to Sino-US tourism, especially among young people and those seeking adventure. She said visitors can enhance their experience by relying on well-planned routes and good understanding of the strict US traffic rules: "If not, you may find yourself in trouble."

Driving safe

Beijing resident Wang Yifei has been on two self-driving trips in the US. She stressed the importance of understanding the rules of the road.

"Although traffic rules are much the same all over the world, minor differences are very important because they mainly relate to safety," she said, adding that Chinese drivers must learn to be patient in traffic jams and should always adhere to the prescribed speed limits.

Wang was pulled over by the police for a traffic violation in Yosemite National Park. "I used a safety lane to overtake a car in front of me that I thought was moving too slowly. As I passed the slower vehicle, a police car sounded its alarm and I was pulled over. I had no idea about the traffic laws in the US and the police officer criticized me severely. Luckily, I wasn't fined," she said.

Differences in etiquette may also confuse Chinese drivers. Liu Jing was asked to pay $120 because he failed to wash and refuel his car before returning it to the rental agency.

"You can rent a car when you get off the plane, and some agencies even provide services in Chinese. But washing and refueling the car before returning it is a must - it's an unbreakable rule," he said. To avoid unnecessary problems, Liu suggested tourists pay close attention to every requirement for car rental under US traffic law.

He called for Chinese car rental agencies to offer information to customers about the laws and related regulations in different states.

"In China, drivers just slow down when they see a stop sign, but in the US the sign means 'full stop'. If you disobey and fail to stop, you'll face a heavy fine, at the very least," he said. "Learn the rules and stay safe."

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Staying safe in the face of driving ambitions 

Beijing resident Zhao Yang poses for a photo with his Harley Davidson motorcycle in Las Vegas, the United States, before embarking on a riding tour in October last year.Xu Yana / For China Daily

Staying safe in the face of driving ambitions

(China Daily 09/30/2016 page5)