By Zhou Xin and Ken Wills
BEIJING (Reuters) - China is rapidly becoming a country on wheels and its crowded driving schools are racing to churn out licensed drivers as fast as cars roll off the assembly lines.
But judging by the daily smash-ups and blatant disregard for even basic traffic rules on China's roadways, quantity seems to have trumped quality at many schools.
China surpassed the United States in 2009 to become the world's largest auto market, and just as newly affluent Chinese are snapping up expensive cars in staggering numbers, driving schools are bursting at the seams.
"There are so many trainees because everyone wants a driving license," said Ren Xingzhou, an instructor at Fengshun Driving School in Beijing. "Driving used to be a profession in China -- now it's necessary living skill."
According to official data, China granted 22.69 million driving licenses in 2011 alone, bringing the total number of licensed drivers in the country to 236 million at the end of 2011.
But no amount of classroom work or simulated driving may prepare drivers for the roadways that more closely resemble slow-moving battle grounds than transportation arteries.
In 2010 alone, China reported 3.9 million road accidents that killed 65,225 people and injured 254,075. Lack of experience is often cited as a key reason behind the rocketing number of accidents.
In hopes of instilling some sense of order, Chinese law requires drivers to attend a driving school before passing a written test. As a result, thousands of driver training schools, charging as much as 8,000 yuan ($1,300), have mushroomed across Beijing, a city of about 20 million people that is already congested with some 5 million cars.
Fengshun driving school alone mints about 10,000 new drivers a year, running classes from 8 in the morning to 9 in the evening, seven days a week.
Applicants must pass three tests to obtain a license. The first part is classroom training to make drivers aware of traffic rules. As hundreds of trainees listen, an instructor explains a text book compiled by the traffic police.
A quiz of 100 questions follows, and trainees must provide correct answers to at least 90 before they can even get behind the wheel of the training vehicles.
"You don't have to be a genius to pass that as long as you read the book in the evening before the quiz," said a company clerk, who claimed he skipped all the classroom lessons apart from the first one when a fingerprint was required.
The second section -- the main part of the training that requires at least 54 hours -- is conducted on a paved proving ground that mimics actual roads and traffic signs but lacks all of the hazards that make actual driving a challenge.
Hundreds of meters from the school, one of the city's main roadways was packed with cars end-to-end on a recent winter day, a looming reminder to the school's drivers of the world they would enter upon graduation.
In each car -- mostly Volkswagens at the Fengshun school -- one instructor and one trainee sit side-by-side, practicing all the required skills, from parallel parking to driving through a 30-metre obstacle course of six yellow-painted sewer covers without touching any of them.
"It's absolutely ridiculous. These covers are symbols of roadblocks, but which road would be so terrible as to have so many roadblocks, and even if there are so many roadblocks, which driver would be so crazy trying to pass them?" asked Ren even as he put the students through the required exercise.
For trainees who pass the second test, including parking in the right position and starting the car on a steep slope, they will apply their new skills on public roads, where already-licensed drivers routinely make sudden lane changes without signaling, and where pedestrians unexpectedly dash across roadways wherever they see an opening.
Road training lasts for 10 hours where soon-to-be-drivers are often bullied and horrified by Beijing's infamously short-tempered drivers.
On a recent day, a young driver stopped and hurled curses to complain that one trainee's car was moving too slowly.
"If he dares to get out of his vehicle, I would definitely teach him a good lesson," retorted Wu Liansheng, the instructor in the training car.
Turning to his student drivers, Wu said: "Now remember, you don't cross the line into others, but if someone else crosses into yours, you must fight back."
It's enough to make one nostalgic for simpler days when millions got around on bicycle.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.