Driver’s License story

This is from today’s Asian Wall Street Journal. Finally.

Collision Course
In China, Getting a Driver’s License
Is as Scary as Getting Behind the Wheel

April 7, 2006

For an open abdominal wound, such as protrusion of the small intestine tube, we should:
a) Put it back.
b) No treatment.
c) Not put it back, but cover it with a bowl or jar, and bind the bowl or jar with a cloth belt.*

Do you think this question comes from a paramedic training examination? An army first-aid manual? Or a driving test?

The answer is a driving test and the question is a harbinger of what’s to come. In fact, the only adventure that can rival taking to China’s often treacherous roads is actually getting permission to drive on them.

China is one of just five countries that doesn’t recognize international driving permits (the others are Bermuda, Burundi, Iraq and Nigeria, according to the American Automobile Association). So expatriates who want to get behind the wheel in China have to get a local license.

Usually the practical element — actually driving a car accompanied by an examiner — is far scarier to do anywhere than a written exam. But foreigners holding a license from another country no longer have to take a road test in China. They do, however, face a headache-inducing, 100-question, computerized exam, drawn from about 750 possible questions, that covers everything from the niceties of repairing intestinal protrusions to the penalty for transporting nuclear materials. Score less than 90 and it’s back to square one.

Changing Gears

Not long ago, any expat in China holding a license from overseas just had to pass a driving test consisting of about 100 meters of straight-line motoring. When Chinese-American lawyer Titi Liu turned up to take the road test five years ago, she panicked when told she couldn’t use her own vehicle. Instead, she had to drive the tester’s manual transmission car, even though she didn’t know how to shift gears. After a rushed lesson over the telephone from her bemused husband, she got in the car, filled with three other nervous exam candidates, as well as the examiner, and puttered down the course without ever leaving first gear. She was rewarded with a shiny new license.

Since then, it’s gotten harder for foreigners and locals alike to get a license as the country’s authorities aim to limit the number of inexperienced, accident-prone drivers on the country’s thoroughfares. No wonder. Last year, there were 450,254 road accidents, killing 98,738 people and injuring 469,911, according to the Ministry of Public Security — and that’s the first time the nationwide death toll has fallen below 100,000 since 2001. That makes China, a nation still coming to grips with the automobile, responsible for 15% of global road traffic deaths. Car crashes themselves are the ninth largest cause of human deaths on the planet, according to the World Health Organization.

All of which left me sitting in the large, computer terminal-filled testing room on the second floor of the Beijing Traffic and Vehicle Department headquarters, feeling a little disorientated. The reason: Until I read through the pretesting information, I hadn’t realized that I needed a 90 to pass. I knew I was doomed after 20 questions, having guessed on at least five. I sped through the rest, hit the send button, and a frowning face overflowing with tears immediately popped onto my screen. I had scored 83. I was determined that before I tried again in two weeks’ time, the soonest I was allowed to retake the exam, I would hit the books.

Of course, this being, well, China, there are ways to get around the computerized exam. Pay about $100 and you can take a handwritten test at Fesco, the government-licensed foreign employment agency. Most people who take the test in this way seem, miraculously, to score a 91. It isn’t a bad deal when you consider the total tab of the equivalent of about $34 for getting a license the usual way: 10 yuan to take a “physical,” which in my case was just a vision check, half-heartedly administered at a local hospital by a friendly, elderly doctor; 60 yuan to translate your license into Chinese; 150 yuan for the English-language study guide; five yuan to make a reservation to sit the test; and 50 yuan each time you take the test. If only I’d known about the Fesco option before choosing to sit the computerized exam.

Chinese nationals take the same computerized exam, but because getting a driver’s license has become a rite of passage in China, they spend months studying for it and don’t find it so confronting. Local people, and foreigners who don’t have a license at home, have to take a road test and a parallel parking test, too; a new, tougher road test was introduced in Beijing in January 2005 and is spreading around the country.

The tougher tests appear to be having the desired effect. The Ministry of Public Security says that the first-time passing rate on tests was 80% in 2004 but fell to 50% in 2005. Meantime, the death toll caused by drivers with under one year of driving experience declined by 19.7% over the same period.

Street Scenes

Still, many expatriates and Chinese returning from abroad question the wisdom of driving in China at all. Some companies make employees and their spouses sign waivers promising not to drive in China before posting them here. Even a minor accident can lead to a confusing, protracted street scene, waiting for the police to arrive while a crowd gathers and screams at the driver. “Driving is very stressful and also very dangerous,” says Noriko Parrett, a Japanese national who has been driving in Beijing for two years. “I have driven all over the world. Every place is different but this is by far the craziest.”

And yet, if you are living here, you are on the road one way or another anyway, and there is a decent chance your driver got his license just last week. So I forced myself to study that cursed, voluminous book and entered my retest fairly confident. I took my time, maintained my cool, reread my answers, changed a few and hit “send.” Almost immediately, a flashing smiley-face danced across my screen. I had scored a 90. I floated downstairs, almost hugging another successful test taker.

But then I realized: Having tried to memorize many of the answers to 750 questions — including 161 road signs, some marked only by Chinese characters — and negotiated the test, all I’d done is the easy bit. Now I actually have to drive on China’s roads.

*The answer to the abdominal wound question, by the way, is C. Happy driving.

Alan Paul is a Beijing-based writer.

1 reply
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Another well written and funny piece from one of my two favorite news writers! I love the way you started this.


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