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Getting Your Driver's Licence in China

Updated 6 Sep 2010

By Broc Smith, author of “The Tragic Kingdom, or, Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park”

The best advice for expats wanting to get their drivers licence in China is simple. Don’t.

In China, driving is a risky business and can often seem more similar to a true blood sport or a carnal game of “chicken” than a way of getting from point A to point B. It is not like in the States, where one can drive at high speeds in straight lines on well-kept roads, the biggest dangers being drunks, arrogance, and speed itself.

In China, you see a different kind of aggression and in many cases drivers are unlicensed and unskilled. Though, if you do have to get behind the wheel, there are some simple cautions to be aware of and it is best to remember this simple rule of thumb: if it is bigger than you, then get out of the way.

Expat drivers in China beware

The first thing to remember is that the lines in the road are for general reference only. If you do follow them strictly, as in the West, you will never get to where you are going. Expats should also beware of motorists performing unannounced right turns or impulsive 100-metre dashes on the wrong side of the street in order to make a quick left turn. Both actions occur as a matter of course.

Furthermore, it is not unusual to encounter someone backing up on the freeway after having missed a turn-off. Cabs or buses picking up a fare are apt to take up two lanes in order to avoid losing their place on the road, and there are huge blue Russian-built trucks that barrel down highways with inexperienced drivers at the helm. Headlights are used (even by city buses) only when absolutely necessary, and at night many drivers leave their brights on, mercilessly blinding you and leaving themselves blissfully free of the realisation that you might just swerve into their path.

Mirrors and turn indicators seem to be cosmetic in the mind of the Chinese, and merging traffic is often referred to as the “turtle walk” because most drivers seem to feel if they pull out in front of you slow enough it will give you time to adjust your speed. Traffic signals are obeyed when convenient, and without fail, someone will ALWAYS run the red light - especially true in Beijing.

To top it off, drivers act mortally offended if everyone else does not respect the fact that they have a car.

It’s a jungle out there

Having a car in China makes you by definition an elitist; therefore, respect for your status is of the highest importance and pedestrians, bicyclists, and all others must kowtow. It is like being back on the playground in kindergarten. “I have the tricycle, that makes me king of the road.”

Basically once you step out of your house, there is little or no protection out there and you are decidedly on your own. Road rules, like the cops who enforce them, are strictly case-in-point scenarios. Chinese cops are so lenient with the rules it would make an LA cop blush.

Remember, if it can happen, it will happen, and it is best to keep in mind the old joke, “Where does a 600-pound gorilla sit?” Answer: “Anywhere he wants to.” The laws of the jungle apply in such obvious ways it is impossible not to notice.

The overall sensation of danger and catastrophe from any direction at any time is ever-present. The same applies to China, with 10,000 new motorists being added to the tarmac daily. Unlike the Philippines, my former home and a place where road skills tend to be sacrificial in nature tempered with a great deal of bravado, the Chinese embrace more of a bicycle mentality - only at high speeds surrounded by a thick skin of steel.

Getting a driver's licence in China

I do drive here, but I have only recently obtained a Chinese driver’s licence. Taking the driver’s exam required the service of an individual who had a name card but no business address. He and his colleagues lined up the rather extensive paperwork for me to qualify just to take the test. These included medical tests, a work permit, police residence registration, and a permanent resident card, after which I was given the test book with 1,000 questions. They have a copy in English, and 100 of the questions are chosen randomly to be included on the test. Most of the questions seem to be geared for punitive measures, as in “what the authorities can do to you if you don’t do this.” There are also many questions obviously designed not only for new drivers, but for the fledgling auto industry itself.

The test is taken on a computer and seemed like such serious business until a cute little happy face came up on the screen and gave me a hearty guffaw, meaning I passed. Regardless of all the rules and tests required in order to drive, I have never seen anybody abide by them. At least not in Beijing, as it is total jungle-ball out there and would appear the government, despite its best intentions, is severely limited by its ability to enforce.

My wife, who IS Chinese, recently acquired her driver’s licence in Shenzhen. According to her, (and I have absolutely no reason to doubt her), when she was learning to drive many people just paid off the driving instructor and got a free pass. Hence as many as thirty percent or more of drivers on the road may have the licence but not the skills. This is positive evidence that if you cannot get a driver’s licence in the “normal way”, then you can do it the “other normal way”.

Tips to keep you roadworthy

I’ve concluded that if you NEVER speed or challenge anything or anybody then you will do all right. The moment I feel the need to contest another driver, bicyclist, or pedestrian’s intent is the moment I fail. There is no winning of road disputes for foreigners. Even if I were practiced and articulate with the language I would find no allies anywhere. To actually bump someone’s car or tap a pedestrian, whether they are going the wrong way down a one-way street or crossing with no crossing lane in sight, makes you the bad guy. Stopping to actually render aid or be outraged by their inconceivable ignorance and error usually gives enough time for a crowd to develop – a scenario that indefinitely ends badly and should be avoided at all costs.

About the Author: Broc Smith is an architect who writes about working in China for the past 10 years. His book  “The Tragic Kingdom, or; Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park”  is a profile of the personalities, culture, and psychology of the world’s most massive looming superpower as seen through the eyes of an ex-pat American.

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