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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 April, 2004, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
Learning your Chinese highway code

By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent, Beijing

Beijing skyline
China's roads are among the deadliest in the world

My family has a poor record with driving tests. I failed mine four times in the UK.

My father failed his first test for going too slowly, while my mother even managed to hit a police car on her first go.

So it was with some trepidation that I faced the prospect of getting my driving licence in China.

Little did I know what an ordeal it would turn into.

Procedure

The first stage was a series of medical examinations where men in white coats did inexplicable things.

One hit my knees and elbows with a small hammer, another scratched the soles of my feet with a stick, and a third conducted experiments involving holding a tuning fork to my ear.

From their air of resignation, it was clear that these unfortunate individuals had been assigned one test each, which they were fated to inflict on prospective drivers in perpetuity.

Chinese doctors and military officers
Chinese military officers are given free health checks on the street as part of the road safety campaign

Once I had been given a clean bill of health, I trekked out to a big grey building on the far edges of Beijing to submit my documentation.

The city planners must have been smirking when they decided where to put the driving test centre.

With the Kafkaesque logic so beloved of Chinese bureaucrats, it is almost impossible to reach the place without driving there; but you cannot get a driving licence unless you go there.

Preparation

Collecting the right documents was in itself an administrative feat that had taken months.

Various permits had to be obtained and photocopied, my driving licence translated and stamped officially, and multiple photographs produced.

Brandishing all the right bits of paper, I was given a date for my test. It was a written exam on the rules of the road in China.

When I asked the bossy woman behind the counter where I could buy a book to swot up on it, she said breezily: "Oh there is no such thing, just ask someone who has done the test."

My inquiries were not too successful.

I was handed my test paper and looked down at it with horror

"Do not worry about it," our office manager Christine said. "It is easy. We all passed with 99%."

"Why do you not just buy a licence like I did?" an English friend asked. "It saves so much hassle, it is worth every penny."

A third friend admitted that she had been driving without a Chinese licence for years. "It does not matter, no one else can drive around here anyway," she said.

The big day

Traffic sign board
New traffic sign boards are all part of the public road safety campaign

The morning of my test dawned. I had got up early and spent hours sitting in traffic to make it on time.

I was handed my test paper and looked down at it with horror. One hundred questions faced me, all of them in, frankly, incomprehensible English.

Several asked about the behaviour of people called practitioner drivers. It was only afterwards I realised this meant learner drivers.

Even though most questions were multiple choice, that did not stop them from being baffling.

In one case, answers a and c were exactly the same.

If you come across a road accident victim, whose intestines are lying on the road, should you pick them up and push them back in?

When I pointed this out to the invigilator, he took a red pen and drew a big cross through the whole question, explaining that there had been a mistake with the printing.

Other questions were well beyond the scope of this driver.

I was expected to know how high one could load a motorcycle to travel on an expressway, and exactly what role the oil pressure gauge plays in the functioning of an engine.

The most memorable question was: "If you come across a road accident victim, whose intestines are lying on the road, should you pick them up and push them back in?"

This was not a driving scenario that I had ever envisaged.

Results

At the end of it, I flunked the test. I thought I had not done too badly with 63%, but the pass mark is 90%.

My husband, who has worked as a taxi driver, and took the test in Chinese, failed too. He just scraped 70%.

Chinese traffic police
Chinese traffic policemen distribute road safety information in Beijing

Unsurprisingly, our dual failure caused great mirth at the office.

Our driver chuckled all the way back, even as he mounted the pavement and swerved round pedestrians to skip a traffic jam.

Like other Beijingers, he is an expert at finding ways of avoiding the endless gridlock.

After six months here, hurtling into the path of oncoming traffic does not faze me at all, though I did draw the line when one taxi driver tried to take me down a bicycle lane on the wrong side of the road.

It is hardly surprising that China is becoming one of the most dangerous places in the world to drive.

The written driving tests are, as I discovered, meaningless and no one pays any attention to the regulations anyway.

Given the amount of traffic on the roads, driving is frankly a frustrating and hazardous experience.

So maybe it is a blessing in disguise that I have no choice but to carry on riding my bicycle, for the moment at least.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 22 April, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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