MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
China is home to the world's largest car market and it added nearly 18 million drivers just last year. But getting a license isn't easy. There's a practical test and a written one where a passing grade is 90 percent. Oh, and foreigners get translated questions, which they often find incomprehensible. NPR's Frank Langfitt recently took the written test several times and filed this postcard from Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm here at the Shanghai traffic bureau. I'm about to go in and take the test. And I can tell you, this is actually a really, really hard test because I failed it the first time. It's chosen from over 900 questions. You have to do 100 questions. And I'm going to hope that this time I pass. It took me 20 minutes to finish this time. I felt confident. I shouldn't have.
So I failed again. I did improve. The first time I got a 77 out of 100. This time I got an 86, which anywhere else would be a solid B, but not on the Chinese driving test.
What makes the test so hard? First, you have to memorize a ton of information. Consider this yes or no question. Reading verbatim: If a motorized vehicle driver has cause a major traffic accident in violation of the traffic regulations, which has caused human death due to his escaping, the driver is subject to a prison term of three years to seven years.
The answer, it turns out, is no. What's the actual prison term? I have no idea. The second reason the test is tough for foreigners is this.
HUGO ILLOA: It's impossible to understand what they're trying to say.
LANGFITT: Hugo Illoa is an international trader from Chile. We met after he'd failed the test for the second time.
ILLOA: I've been studying for two days already.
LANGFITT: How many hours, do you think?
ILLOA: It was like, last night, it was three hours and I still cannot pass this. I'm getting really frustrated.
LANGFITT: Foreigners do appreciate that officials here offer an English version of the test, but they find some of the translations a hard slog like this one: When there's a diversion traffic control on the expressway, a driver can stop by the side to wait instead of leaving out of the expressway for continually running after the traffic control.
I don't know what that means, but under Chinese law, apparently you can't do it.
JEFFREY KELSCH: My name is Jeffrey Kelsch. I run a marketing research firm here in Shanghai.
LANGFITT: Kelsch tried for his license last year so he could drive out of town with his dog for trips. Kelsch failed the first two times.
KELSCH: Then, I took it the third time and I actually did worse. So at this point, I decided, OK. I'm giving up on this. I did worse than my second score, which was like a - I think it was like an 83 or an 84.
WEI QIU: For Chinese people, it's just another exam and Chinese people are good at exams.
LANGFITT: Wei Qiu, a Chinese TV producer in Beijing, passed the written test on her first try. She says the format is much easier for Chinese people, because they were raised in an education system that emphasizes memorization. But Wei doubts the test produces better drivers.
QIU: Because the test is so complicated, it kind of undermines the purpose of (unintelligible) test. You know, after the test, I pretty much forget everything. So if you now asked me a question now about a traffic rule, I still couldn't quite answer you.
VIRGIL ADAMS: I didn't study. I didn't do anything. I've been driving for more than 30 years.
LANGFITT: Virgil Adams works as a financial manager in Jiangshu Province outside of Shanghai. Unlike other foreigners who approached the test with dread, Adams knew he would pass the first time. That's because he hired a Chinese agent to fix the results.
ADAMS: I sat down at the terminal and I started taking the test. At the end of the test, as per my agent's instructions, I did not submit my answers. I stood up and walked out of the testing room. My best guess is that probably my agent walked in, sat down at my seat, reviewed my answers and corrected any wrong ones.
LANGFITT: Paying people to take your driver's test is common in smaller cities here. That may explain why, as recently as 2011, China had a similar number of drivers as the U.S. but nearly twice as many traffic deaths. As for me, I finally passed the test. On the fourth try I got a 93. Afterwards, a police officer at the testing center who was getting to know me pretty well, came over and shook my hand. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.