Driving in Korea

As many of you may have noticed, Korean driving norms appear to be very different to those in many “western” countries. Many expats I know in Korea have commented that they would be or are afraid to drive in Korea. But are Korean roads really that dangerous, why are the standards of driving different, and what effects does this have?

Changing lanes on the streets of Korea

From my point of view, and also based on some reports I heard at the recent Ajou International Trauma Conference in Seoul which I attended, the biggest difference between driving practice in Korea and “western” countries is how people interpret the laws of the road. In Korea, as opposed to countries in much of Europe and North America among many others, most drivers do not consider that traffic laws are completely binding. Those living in Korea will surely be familiar with this; it is common practice to run a red light if there is nothing directly preventing you from doing so, or to turn right or left across the road from what others may consider the “wrong side” – turning left from the right-hand lane, for example. Lack of indication and an apparent lack of forethought are also considered to be common features of driving in Korea.

Now, some may feel that it is unfair of me to be critical, and may feel that just because people drive differently it is wrong for me to say that that method is wrong. In most cases I would completely agree with that sentiment, but in this case, considering Korea’s appallingly high rate of road traffic accidents and traffic-related deaths, especially in comparison with similarly developed countries, I think it’s fair to say that the “Korean way” of driving isn’t quite as good as it should or could be. In fact, I actually think it’s quite easy to see how Korea’s roads have become so dangerous when you see some of the driving habits – jumping red lights, ignoring pedestrians and so on. Many – but not all – Koreans are also aware of this. This is one of the main reasons why the rate of people using bicycles for transport is so low.

Note the cars parked facing the flow of traffic: how did they get there?

Before I get into further detail about what I consider to be the reasons behind some of this, I think it’s important to add that the sheer number of cars in Korea’s urban areas greatly amplifies the likelihood of accidents (and also means there’s going to be a larger number of bad drivers in absolute terms). Cars are an important status symbol and a part of the social fabric in Korea. As a result, despite the fact that it has a phenomenally good public transportation system, many people – especially business people – will opt to drive or be driven rather than take a bus or the subway in many circumstances. Sheer volume of traffic also makes it more difficult for the emergency services to do their job when accidents occur, and for police and other authorities to monitor and control traffic.

One reason people may be particularly sensitive to driving differences is simply because of the very fact that they are different. That is to say, most Korean drivers know to expect that people won’t indicate when they want to change lanes, whereas in certainly my home country, and possibly yours, too, indicating is standard practice, and so we expect it and are accustomed to it. In many ways, this governs how we interact with other cars on the road. In Korea, however, where this isn’t such standard practice, it is more common for a driver to react to what unfolds around them, rather than to treat driving as some sort of communal interaction. For this reason it is quite common to see people straddling two lanes while driving, as their choice of lane is more likely to be decided after seeing what other cars around them do. In this way I cannot say that one way is better than the other, this really is just a difference. Once one becomes accustomed to this method of driving in Korea, presumably it becomes a lot easier and one learns to “go with the flow” of Korean roads better.

I also think another factor in the development of Korea’s “rules-as-guidelines” approach to driving is that Korea became a country of drivers much later than the US and other “western” countries. The reason I think this affects people’s driving habits is because in the west driving infrastructure and laws were developed over a far longer period of time, and new developments were brought in for specific reasons once they became necessary; speed limits were only introduced when cars became fast enough to cause a lot of injuries. The seminal cheap mass-produced car, the Model T Ford, was first produced in 1908. If we take that as a starting point, the west has had a century to develop good driving habits, create and develop laws that are effective and are brought in because the general consensus is that they’re needed, and basically develop a good driving mentality. It is commonly accepted that traffic regulations were introduced when developments in motor vehicle technology and driving patterns increased the need for such regulation, and their purpose was to maintain a standard of safety on the roads that was constant. This gradual introduction and development meant that drivers were more likely to accept them and abide by them, as the reasons for their introduction would have been self-evident previously. As an example, when cars became too fast and began to cause accidents, people became aware of this. They therefore gained a logical appreciation of speed limits when they were introduced.

In Korea (although I’m sure it isn’t the only country where this applies), on the other hand, they picked up the laws, infrastructure and, well, cars themselves, all in one fell swoop in terms of the general population. So, when they first came in, they had no relevance to what people knew or had experienced as they were based on and influenced by the more gradual development of motoring in other countries. Therefore Korea didn’t have an equivalent period of time during which to develop rules to match the state of the driving culture as it developed – people were just suddenly driving. In this case, then, the accumulative experience of the people who became Korea’s car drivers was not based on the development of cars and “western” driving methods, practices and standards. The rules they rapidly received, therefore, came all at once, and were essentially irrelevant to the general cumulative experience of the people to whom they applied.

Korean urban roads are generally modern and well signposted: it's the driving habits that can cause problems

Basically, if you’ve ever witnessed a road in Vietnam or somewhere similar, where the majority still don’t drive cars, and the roads appear to the outsider to be chaos, imagine if all the pedestrians and people on small motorcycles were replaced with car drivers – no matter how many laws were brought in to regulate the roads, they’d be a mess, people would drive cars the way the ride their bikes there now. This can’t be said to be anyone’s fault, and as has been said, it’s not necessarily wrong, it just seems to me like it is therefore an inevitability that drivers seem to show far less regard for traffic regulations.

The unpredictability and business of the streets of Seoul

The statistics regarding how dangerous Korea’s roads are – for both pedestrians and drivers – still indicate that change is necessary. The participants in the aforementioned trauma conference – who have to deal with the casualties from all of this – certainly seem to think that something must be done to alter driving patterns on the roads in Korea. For me, the most basic and fundamental step that needs to be taken is to develop a driving culture in which laws are obeyed regardless of whether they make sense, are deemed appropriate in whatever situation or are even understood. The reasons for this are equally obvious. If all drivers – and pedestrians – unquestioningly obey the laws of the road then drivers’ actions become more predictable, people have to follow certain patterns, and driving behaviour becomes uniform. With the situation as it is – taking jumping red lights as an example – if this is deemed acceptable practice then those whose job it is to enforce the law are essentially allowing each individual driver to decide whether or not it is safe to drive when their light is red. I would say that the majority of times people make decisions to drive over red lights which don’t result in any accidents or injuries. What I don’t understand is how it can be deemed acceptable to allow each individual to make that choice. All it takes is a momentary lapse in concentration, a drunk driver, an obscured view, or any other minor or major factor, and that individual choice can result in damage, injury and deaths. If the idea that it is acceptable for people to make their own judgments on what decisions to make while driving, using laws as nothing more than guidelines, is removed than that element of unpredictability and potential danger is also removed. There are indeed times when it is perfectly safe to drive over a red light – when there are no cars or pedestrians around in the dead of the night, for example – but it has to be all or nothing. Remove the idea that it is the driver’s prerogative to choose, instead meaning all traffic laws are obeyed regardless of any outside factors, and eventually I think the roads will become safer and more pleasant to drive on.