A looming national move to allow people to take the driver’s license road test without having to learn from a driving school is causing a buzz among drivers-to-be, driving coaches and driver-training schools.
The public order regulation department of the Ministry of Public Security last Tuesday announced a planned radical reform for the national driving test, which would probably allow people to learn on their own or be taught by relatives.
Such a move would no doubt cost the training schools, many of which are notoriously corrupt, much of their business.
“It is an effort to crack down on test rigging and bribery, transform the government’s functions and optimize many social resources, and give student more freedom to make their own choices,” said Huang Ming, vice minister of the Public Security Ministry, at a press conference.
The driving test must be completely open and transparent, as well as being efficient and effective, he said.
The announcement stirred attention and gossip online that went immediately into overdrive, as people relished the idea of saving large sums of money by avoiding driving schools.
However, the announcement didn’t reveal many details about the reform, including timing and whether the plan will be put onto the table for further discussion. It received a few boos but a lot more thumbs-up.
“What? Self-learning? When will it be open? I will apply to be the first one,” says Wang Jiabo, 25, a tennis teacher in Shanghai’s Changning District. “I’m going to learn driving next year but I don’t like those driving schools. I’m all for it if I can learn by myself because my father can teach me.”
Wang’s view strongly reflects the results of a recent online poll among more than 87,000 people. About 86 percent said they support breaking the link between the driving test and driving schools, while 11 percent were against it and 3 percent weren’t sure.
Currently in China, people have to go through mandatory training courses at a driving school, and the school must apply to the vehicle administration department for the student to take the test.
While the system is ostensibly designed to allow traffic authorities to control the number of new drivers hitting the roads each year, it has also been widely accused of breeding a culture of bribery.
In September, 22 people from a vehicle administration department that monitors 40 driving schools in Shijiazhuang, capital city of north China’s Hebei Province, were found to have taken millions of yuan in bribes for manipulating driving test results.
China has almost 300 million licensed drivers. During the next 10 years, the number is expected to soar by 20 million a year, so that by 2024 there will be close to half a billion.
Meanwhile, fees at the schools keep rising and are up about 50 percent from five years ago. Since September, Shanghai’s average fee has increased to 10,360 yuan (US$1,685) and prospective drivers need to spend about 3,000 yuan more for various other tests.
In Beijing and Guangzhou, the training fees have increased to 7,000 yuan.
“Driving coaches are greedy sometimes,” says Chen Jiayi, 29, who is learning at a driving school in Jiading District. “It has been an unwritten rule to give them gifts. If you don’t do it, you’ll get into trouble.”
The poll also revealed that corruption (61.6 percent) and high tuition fees (55 percent) are considered to be the two major problems at driving schools.
Coach Qiao (who is reluctant to give his full name), 53, at Qilong Driving School in Minhang District, doesn’t deny that corrupt practices have existed in the industry for many years.
“They ask for red envelops, cigarettes, tea and gift cards,” says Qiao, who has been teaching for about 15 years.
“But there are two sides to the story,” he is quick to add. “Some students are giving their coaches gifts to express sincerely their thankfulness, while some other coaches are blackmailing. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush.”
Qiao teaches about 50 students every year and is proud that he has never received any bribery complaint from his students.
“In a formal, licensed driving school like Qilong with collective ownership, we all have complaint departments to deal with bribery. But in those privately owned driving schools, it’s bad. I’ve heard that if students don’t give coaches gifts or money, the coach won’t teach or the student won’t get much opportunity to practice,” Qiao says.
Because the driving instructors bear no responsibility for how their students perform once they take the test, some corrupt teachers simply won’t teach students who fail to give them gifts.
In a privately owned driving school or company, the boss usually outsources its vehicles to individual coaches, who then are responsible for their own profits and losses, including the gas and car maintenance fees, among many others.
Every individual coach invests about 150,000 yuan to buy a learner-driven car from the company installed with a coaching license, car plate, special brakes, horn and headlights. The company charges 2,000-2,500 yuan for each student. The rest goes to the coach.
Students generally take group lessons, with four learning at one time. An average set of lessons for one of the three parts of the road test will last three weeks, with students going once or twice a week for usually half a day.
After students take a written test on traffic regulations, the 3-part road test consists of driving in reverse, driving on small roads and finally driving on major roads.
Coach Qiao has heard of the “self-learning” plan for a long time, but maintains it’s not practical. He cites the strict training a coach must receive before he can get his teaching license.
“These things are all very professional and necessary that you or your friends, relatives can’t obviously do yourself,” Qiao says. “If the test is to be reformed, I believe there will be more detailed policies to release. So far we haven’t received any notice.”