I've been meaning to post something about this since the day I got here, but today's a good day to do it since I don't think there was any big insight for the day.
Here in China, not only is traffic horrendous in it's volume, but also in the amount of hazard it causes. I'm pretty sure traffic laws here are pretty similar to the States, but one thing that is definitely different is the level of obedience. Trying to cross the street here is like playing a real-life game of Frogger, where you only have one life to lose. And that's even when the car traffic light is red, and the pedestrian light is green. Be careful.
Even if a street is one way, do not assume that you should only look down one way before crossing. The saying goes something like "assuming makes an ass out of you and me," but in this case assuming makes you dead. Or at least fatally injured. Cars, bikes, and motorcylces routinely like to go down empty one-ways because it's more convenient for them.
No matter how safe you can assume to be because of whatever rules are in place, throw all those assumptions out of the window. Always keep your head on a swivel when crossing the streets (or walking anywhere near them) here in China.
All this danger aside, I tried to figure out if there was some anomoly here where you would think that this is all dangerous but the accident/fatality rate here is lower. Just like how you would assume that the speed-limitless autobahn would be more dangerous than the streets of the States but accident stats prove otherwise.
I did a little Googling (and some Wikipedia-ing) and found this table of statistics listing nations and their corresponding road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per a year. Turns out...China has a much higher road fatality rate than the United States. According to this Wiki article (and of course you may question its accuracy), in the States we have a rate of 12.3 whereas in China they have a rate of 16.5.
So, given of course that this information is accurate, not only is the rate higher than the US but I assert that this comparison grossly understates the actual danger on the streets of China. And this is why... the data is based off 'per 100,000 inhabitants' and China is one huge country. BUT in China, the amount of actual traffic is very much concentrated into a very small number of places: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, and others I may not know about. So the 16.5 number is a diluted number where you have a very high fataility rate in those small areas and almost a rate of 0 in probably the remaining 80% of China. So the streets of Shanghai are much more dangerous on any given day than the streets of the U.S.
But still... how do people manage to stay alive and not have massive traffic crisese everyday? I believe the answer is hypervigiliance.
Where in the US we have laws that keep us wary of what to expect, in China your job is to expect the unexpected. Everyone - drivers, pedestrians, bikers, etc - all know that everyone else will be following whatever rules they want (and often that is no rules). So everybody is hypervigilant, and that is how most people remain in tact.