Mortal Art: Learning to drive in China

Despite vastly different driving cultures, learning to drive in China is remarkably similar to the UK. CUtoday spoke to ZUMC student Maria Wong to get the low down on getting a driving licence in the People’s Republic. Writes Daljinder Nagra…

Take a taxi into down-town Hangzhou and you would be forgiven for thinking that China doesn’t have a driver licensing infrastructure. And if they did, how would a learner driver cope in the meleé of swarming bicycles and seemingly suicidal bus drivers? Third year journalism student Maria is currently taking her first steps towards automotive freedom: ‘China is not a safe place to drive. There are too many people on the roads, both in cars and on foot, and too many people break the rules.’

Despite the seeming use of telepathy rather than rear-view mirrors, Chinese learners go through a remarkably similar process to their British counterparts. A written exam tests the student’s knowledge of road signs and traffic regulations, whilst a practical test with an examiner covers actual driving competence. As Maria explains, the practical element is somewhat less stringent than in the UK: ‘He [the examiner] will ask you to drive for a distance of about 500m in a private car park. You have to avoid a number of cones and if you touch three you fail. It lasts about twenty minutes in total.’

Don’t go thinking that taking the test in China will be a short-cut to an easy driving licence however. Only residents (aged 18 and over) are allowed to apply, which means a stay of more than six months. Foreign licence holders looking to pit their wits against the mad traffic that chokes China’s cities will be similarly frustrated, as the international driving licence is not recognised.

Students can also take the test in an automatic car, but like the UK, will be restricted to using them. Manual drivers are licensed to use both.

However there are some critical differences which make it easier for young drivers to get behind the wheel. ‘In China the cost of car insurance is only dependent on the cost of the car, so it would cost the same if it was me or my dad driving.’ That, coupled with petrol prices currently around the 15 pence per litre mark, means money needn’t be the limiting factor to getting independently mobile – particularly if you choose a domestic brand car, which don’t attract the massive import taxes imposed on foreign marques.

Lessons also cost much less in the People’s Republic, with students spending on average 50% longer under tuition. ‘It costs 4000 RMB (£400) for a month, and you get 2hrs a day for the whole month. This is usually enough for most people.

‘I think in the UK you get a provisional licence and then learn to drive. In China you pass both the tests then you get a provisional licence. You have to then just wait six months to get a full licence. In this time the car must have a newly qualified driver sign, but that is the only restriction.’

Cars themselves can present their own obstacles for the (often diminutive) Chinese motorist: ‘For me driving is very difficult, I lack the strength to push the clutch pedal. Also I find it takes a lot of concentration and I’m exhausted after every lesson.’

Maria clearly relishes the challenge however: ‘I find driving a pleasure, and it brings a lot of convenience. I look forward to not having to use the overcrowded buses.’

Like every learner driver, she also longs for the day she gets her own wheels. However, a desire to study in Beijing – a city even more congested than Birmingham – means it will be impractical to own and run her own car. ‘I will probably just drive my family Audi A6 when I return home, it’s sad that I probably wont be able to use a car in Beijing, after finally getting my licence.’

However, Maria clearly hasn’t stopped dreaming of getting behind the wheel and also has immaculate taste in cars. Asked what her dream car is, she quickly answers ‘a Ferrari obviously! They are just so sexy.’

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Filed under China Trip 2011

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