I thought Koreans were bad drivers. Well… they are (sorry 한국 친구들, but you guys are kinda unpredictable behind the wheel). I never had to stray far from my Haebangchon apartment to watch people driving into each other, or buildings, or have a taxi run over my foot (its surprising how little that actually hurts).
Once a friend of mine took me out for lunch and somehow managed to scrape into three other cars while attempting to park. Another friend, after a different lunch, got lost in an underground carpark after losing satellite signal for his GPS. Given that we were in his neighbourhood (and possibly also that I’m not Korean), my gently worded advice that the surface of the Earth might best be reached by taking the ramps going up, went unheeded.
I think the majority of K-expats have probably contributed at some point to the vast body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that Koreans, both individually and collectively, are capable of doing some really weird shit when driving, or riding, or walking for that matter. Such stories are frequently supplemented by the Korean and international press, such as the heartwarming tale of the 69-year-old grandmother who succeeded in finally passing the written portion of her driving test… on the 960th attempt.
…and more recently of course there was this charming little video of the woman who managed to roll her car… almost a full TEN SECONDS after commencing her driving test.
Recently though, I read a thought provoking op-ed in the Korea Times, entitled ‘Driving in Korea is not so bad‘, in which the writer explains that people are incorrect in their beliefs that K-driving is nuts. As it turns out, driving in Korea is very dangerous except that it isn’t. This is because other “more developed” countries (like Canada) have smaller populations and far less population density. The population density thing means Koreans have no choice but to tailgate, which “…is not a sign you are a bad driver, it just means you don’t want some weasel cutting in front of you”. Also, there is limited parking in Seoul, so Koreans have no choice but to park on the curb (or the middle of the street, or wherever the the hell they like). The writer goes on to explain Korea’s ‘ppali ppali’ culture (빨리 빨리 loosely translates to: ‘Quickly! Faster! Just get it done fucking yesterday!’), which means that every motorist “…must be a little faster than the other guy”. This is not always easy, considering the generally observed rule of K-thumb that states, ‘What I’m doing is more important than what you’re doing because I’m me and you’re not (and that goes triple if I don’t know you)’.
Additionally, other, stupider countries (like Canada) have things called ‘road rules’, and that failure to comply with these ‘road rules’ can actually have consequences! The writer points out that the Korean system, where Koreans are free of any and all accountability on the roads, is a much better system, and that, while he himself gets enjoyment from breaking Korea’s road and traffic laws, it’s ok because he does it with good judgement.
Well, there you have it! Koreans are not actually bad drivers. The fact that there are so many more road and pedestrian deaths there than in other, stupider, “more developed” countries is simply because millions of Koreans have very good, culturally-based reasons (that non-Koreans cannot understand) for driving like unmedicated lunatics.
Suddenly all turned around on the subject (thank you Mr Song and the Korea Times), I decided to do a little research. Lo and behold, it turns out that the Koreans aren’t the world’s worst drivers… by a long shot! Even in the OECD, Russia (only Russia) has even more road deaths per million people.
Of course, Korea doesn’t like to compare itself with ‘developed’ countries, because its excuse for all the weird things that happen there is that it isn’t… developed.
As it happens, on a global level Korea actually does pretty well on the roads! Korea’s number of road fatalities per 100,000 people per year (14.1) is actually lower than the global average (18).
So, next time you hear someone talking about how crazy the roads are in Korea, just think yourself lucky you’re not driving somewhere like Sierra Leone, where last year there was one road death for every 131 cars (and where it is now necessary to play a purpose-created board game to learn about things like road signs before applying for a drivers licence).
See? Korea’s kinda normal… kinda.