Driver’s Ed

Driving a car really shouldn’t be that difficult. There are things to learn like the traffic rules, how to control the car, the etiquette of the road. Then there are maneuvers that require more practice and skill, like parallel parking and reversing. These are all things easily learned and put into use everyday by millions of people.

The number of private cars in China is climbing. Everyone wants to trade in their flying pigeon for a Volkswagon or a Suzuki. (Or even a Great Wall – China’s own car designs are improving every year.) What does this mean for China’s roads? It is hard to imagine them getting much crazier. On my 2 kilometer ride to work, I witness countless near miss accidents and pass through three “hot zones” – areas so congested and rife with careless disregard of life, limb and traffic rules it is pointless to try describing it. The good news is everyone is moving at less than 30 km/hr. (Here is a bit of imagery to give you a flash of what it is like: people crossing 3 lanes of traffic without looking, motorized tricycles driving the wrong way down the wrong lane without fear, long trucks blocking all lanes of traffic for as long as they want as they attempt to turn into a road already packed full of trucks, pony & wagon travelling down the middle of the road, passenger buses rolling full tilt through the traffic light on red, several policemen congregating on the side of the road, laughing and talking as mayhem reins all around them… I could go on and on! And as I have seen on Youtube videos of India & Africa, China doesn’t even seem all that bad.) (And Dad – there is no need to worry. It all happens in slow motion.)

In an attempt to understand how Chinese people learn to drive, I accompanied my Chinese friend, I., to her driving lessons this weekend. I. has been attending classes at a local technical college for several months. She has already completed 2 of the required 4 examinations to receive her license. I figured with so many examinations to pass, Chinese drivers must really be getting quite good driving educations. Hmmm. Not really, at least not in my opinion. (Not that American driving education is so great, either. Many of my European friends are appalled that I received a driver’s license without any ability to drive a car with standard transmission.)

As with most education in China, the emphasis is on rote learning of small details that have little practical value. An example.

One of the driving examinations tests the applicants ability to back the car into a garage. Fair enough, that is a useful skill. However, the teaching of the skill goes something like this: Back up until the piece of masking tape on the side of the passenger window is in line with that pole in the distance, then turn the steering wheel completely to the right. Turn until the masking tape in the rear right window is in line with that pole, then stop. Back straight until the masking tape… bla bla bla. I wonder if these students were faced with a car and garage with no masking tape and poles, could they get the car in the garage? In order to pass the exam, the maneuver must be executed precisely with no error.

The street driving portion of the exam requires the applicant to drive straight ahead at a constant speed, then pull over to the side of the road, and then pull back onto the road. They are not really instructed on merging, overtaking, turning around, navigating traffic lights, etc. I was stunned when immediately upon entering the car, no one bothered with seat belts. No one looked at their mirrors, either. In fact, the rear view mirror was turned completely away from the driver. Scariest of all, when joining another road, no one bothered to even look at the merging traffic. The assumption is that anyone coming from behind will simply move out of the way.

Despite the lack of practical, real world instruction, students are expected to parallel park flawlessly, in only one move. Who cares if they don’t know they have to stop at a traffic light or how to merge, at least they can park their car efficiently. (**sarcasm**)

I contrasted all of this with my own experience learning to drive. I took summer “driver’s ed” – a rite of passage at high schools all across America. I sat in my little simulator watching films from the 1970s as I navigated my sim’s steering wheel along with the film. Later, we drove around town in the little Chevy Cavalier driver’s ed car, the kind with an extra steering wheel and brake added to the passenger seat. My town was all of 2,000 people and two traffic lights, so this wasn’t very intense training. Sometimes we drove to the post office so our teacher could drop off his mail. Or we’d go up to the Circle K to get candy bars and soda. We drove down a lot of country roads with practically no traffic at all. I didn’t really get to put any of this training to much use, however. Only a couple of months after getting my license I moved to Kuwait, where driving wasn’t allowed until 18 years. Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive at all. The Kuwaitis have fabulous roads but they take to them with a speedy vengeance the likes of which I had never seen. Our favorite activity on the way to school everyday was surveying the road sides for evidence of fiery high speed crashes.

I’ve had my driver’s license for over 15 years but I haven’t driven in two years and I still don’t know how to drive a stickshift. In fact, I’d say I’m probably always gonna be a reluctant driver. I much prefer the passenger seat. (And if that seat is on a train even better.)

Unfortunately, there are millions of newly-middle class Chinese just dying to get behind the wheel. Let’s hope that is dying in the figurative sense.

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