The new ambition driving some senior citizens

Wu Ruofan
With old age limits abolished on driver's licenses, some elderly people want to get behind the wheel for the first time.
Wu Ruofan
Shot by Hu Jun. Edited by Hu Jun. Subtitles by Yang Yang.

They say you are never too old to learn something new. But driving?

When Zhu Shunbo, who is in his 70s, found out late last year that the age limit for a driver’s license was being abolished, the former high school physics teacher decided to give it a go.

During his teaching years, Zhu lived on campus, so he had no need to learn how to drive.

“Now that I have time after retirement, I want to try new things that I didn’t have the opportunity to do in the past,” said Zhu.

The policy change announced by the Ministry of Public Security last November allows Chinese residents 70 years and older to apply for driving licenses, provided they can meet health requirements.

It’s part of efforts to accommodate the needs of China’s rapidly expanding elderly population, which now numbers 250 million above the age of 60. Many senior citizens remain in excellent health.

Zhu’s son and daughter supported his decision.

“My son was the first one to egg me on for this,” said Zhu. “My kids kept telling me, ‘Dad, you can do it,’ which steeled my determination.”

Zhu signed up at the GM Driving school in the Pudong New Area.

According to the rules, senior applicants are required to pass memory, judgment and reaction assessments, and must submit the results of annual health check-ups.

Zhu passed all the evaluations with full marks and also scored 97 of 100 points on the initial test of driving principles.

He wasn’t so lucky on the actual driving test, which includes parking and passing. He failed the test twice. 

“My confidence has not been shaken,” said Zhu. “I believe I will finally pass.”

In addition to training at the school, Zhu tried to gain some insights from Xiaohongshu (Red), a popular online life-sharing platform with the younger generation.

“There are a lot of things there on how to pass the tests,” said Zhu. “This may sound a bit cocky, but I am very studious.”

Zhu’s coach Zhang Haitao gives him high marks for his learning capabilities.

“I can tell that he has the talent to drive, even more so than many younger beginners,” said Zhang.

The coach said he has learned to be more patient with older driving students because they often have shorter attention spans.

The new ambition driving some senior citizens
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhu Shunbo (right), 75 years old, signs up for driving lessons after the age limit for a driver's license is canceled by the Ministry of Public Security last November.

The new ambition driving some senior citizens
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhu (right) practices parking and passing following the guide of his coach Zhang Haitao.

According to the driving school, a lot of older people came in after the age policy was scrapped, but less than a handful — all men — decided to sign up for lessons. The oldest woman at the school, aged 64, quit after a while.

“It’s often harder for older people to find the sense of direction with the steering wheel,” said Gu Lifang, manager of the school.

And seniors are usually all too ready to give up easily.

“They try several times, feel embarrassed and then give up lessons,” Gu said.

To help them build confidence, seasoned coaches are deployed who are good at communication and pay special attention to personal self-esteem.

“It’s very important that a coach be able to encourage someone to get better day by day,” said Gu. “We don’t want to discourage enthusiasm for driving.”

Special one-on-one classes are provided for seniors, with no one-hour training limit so that they can practice whenever they want to.

Tuition fees for the elderly are 20 percent higher than those for younger students, but Gu pointed out that they are not charged by the hour.

 “The seniors are given ample training time, as it often takes time for them to learn,” said Gu.

The elderly students practice with automatic-transmission cars, relieving them of the additional chore of having to master the clutch system.

Most of the seniors at the school said they would like to drive grandchildren to and from school. The course for them focuses on traffic safety, like speed control and emergency measures.

For Zhu, who is a Chinese go enthusiast, his first stop after getting his driving license will be to drive to Fengjing in Jinshan District, where the Chinese chess game originated.

He said he wants to visit the former residence of Gu Shuiru, a national player he admires. If possible, he hopes to play go there.

“I also want to drive around Shanghai,” said Gu. “Now that I am older, it's not realistic to go more far afield than a day trip.”

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