South Korean Grandmother Passes Driving Test at 960th Attempt

A South Korean grandmother has become a national celebrity by passing her driving test at the 960th attempt.

69-year-old South Korean woman Cha Sa-soon shows her application form for a driver's license in Wanju, south of Seoul, South Korea. Photo: MotorTrivia.com

A South Korean grandmother, now known nationwide as “Grandma Cha Sa-soon,” has achieved a record that causes people to first shake their heads with astonishment and then smile.

Because Cha Sa-soon failed her driver’s test hundreds of times but never gave up. Finally, she got her license — on her 960th attempt.

Cha Sa-soon, 69, whose surname coincidentally means “vehicle” in Korean, is now appearing in a prime-time advertisement for Hyundai, Korea’s largest carmaker.

For three years beginning in April 2005, she took her driving test once a day, five days a week. After that, her pace slowed, to around twice a week.

“When she finally got her licence, we all went out cheering and hugged her, giving her flowers,” said Park Su-yeon, an instructor at Jeonbuk Driving School.

He said that Mrs Cha would not be a danger, since it was on the written part of the test, rather than the practical side, that she had failed so many times.

“I wanted to get a driver’s licence so I could take my grandchildren to the zoo,” Mrs Cha explained.

When words began spreading last year of the woman who was still taking the test after failing it more than 700 times, reporters traced her to Sinchon, where the bus, the only means of public transportation, comes by once every two hours on a street, so narrow it has to pull over to let other vehicles pass.

They also followed her to the test site in the city of Jeonju, an hour away. There, they videotaped her in the market, where she sells her home-grown vegetables at an open-air stall.

Once she finally got her license, in May, Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group, started an online campaign asking people to post messages of congratulations. Thousands poured in. In early August, Hyundai presented Ms. Cha with a $16,800 car.

Ms. Cha said she had always envied people who could drive, but it was not until she was in her 60s that she got around to trying for a license.

“Here, if you miss the bus, you have to wait another two hours. Talk about frustration!” said Ms. Cha, who had to transfer to a second bus to get to her driving test site and to yet another to reach her market stall. “But I was too busy raising my four children.”

She continued: “Eventually they all grew up and went away and my husband died several years ago, and I had more time for myself. I wanted to get a driver’s license so I could take my grandchildren to the zoo.”

Cha Sa-soon, with her new car. Photo: Choe Sang-Hun/The New York Times

Ms. Cha tackled the first obstacle, which for years proved insurmountable: the 50-minute written test consisting of 40 multiple-choice questions on road regulations and car maintenance.

Early in the morning (she wakes up 4 a.m.) and before going to bed, she put on her reading glasses and pored over her well-worn test-preparation books. She first tried, unsuccessfully, an audio test for illiterate people where questions were read to test-takers. Later, she switched to the normal test.

“She could read and write words phonetically but she could not understand most of the terminology, such as ‘regulations’ and ‘emergency light,’ ” said Ms. Park, the teacher.

Choi Young-chul, an official at the regional driving license agency, said: “What she was essentially doing while studying alone was memorizing as many questions — with their answers — as possible without always knowing what they were all about. It’s not easy to pass the test that way.”

She failed the written test 949 times, but her scores steadily crept up. When she came to them early last year, teachers at Jeonbuk Driving School pitched in, giving her extra lessons, painstakingly explaining the terminology.

“It drove you crazy to teach her, but we could not get mad at her,” said Lee Chang-su, another teacher. “She was always cheerful. She still had the little girl in her.”

It was only last November, on her 950th try, that she achieved a passing grade of 60 out of 100. She then passed two driving skill and road tests, but only after failing each four times.

For each of her 960 tests, she had to pay $5 in application fees. “I didn’t mind,” said Ms. Cha. “To me, commuting every day to take the test was like going to school. I always missed school.”

Her son, Park Seong-ju, 36, who lives in Jeonju and makes signboards and placards, said: “Mother has lived a hard life, selling vegetables door to door and working other people’s farms. Maybe that made her stubborn. If she puts her mind to something, no one can argue her out of it.”

About a decade ago, before embarking on her quest for a driver’s license, Ms. Cha spent three years studying for a hairdresser’s license.

For six months, she caught a 6 a.m. bus every weekday, switched to a train and then to another bus to attend a government-financed training program for hairdressers. But no beauty salon would hire her. She was considered too old.

On her wall where she hung black-and-white photographs of her and her late husband as a young couple and a watch that had stopped ticking, she also had posted a handwritten — and misspelled — sign that read, “Never give up!” [via MotorTrivia, Daily Tlegraph (UK) and NY Times]

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