Daredevil Driving in Seoul
June 26, 2009 — Driving in Korea is somewhat akin to a daredevil act. There have been times when it’s been easy, straight-forward and not nightmarish. Those times are few. Mostly it’s like riding bumper cars on a multi-track roller coaster while dodging juggling clowns on a high wire act along the way.
At least half of the foreign residents I know have refused to drive at all. Some drive to and from work only. I don’t have criticisms for this behavior because I completely understand it. However, I just can’t sit still long enough to make myself stay home and I keep telling myself, “Darn it, it’s just driving a car. It shouldn’t be that hard!” I want to be able to jump in the car and get where I’m going under my own terms. Taxi cabs here in Seoul are very easy and super cheap. I’ve used them many times. The subway is also very accessible and inexpensive. These two options are great when I’m out on my own. I like to jump in a taxi and just relax on the ride, focus on my foreign language communication and get to my destination quickly. But, when I’m going out with three kids, I just prefer the convenience of my own car, stocked with emergency baby wipes, extra diapers, changes of clothes, iPods, stroller and car seat. The familiarity of the ride just makes it easier on me and the kids, so I choose to drive myself whenever I’m going out with them. I frequently get shocked responses from friends when I say, “I’ll just drive.” It seems like it should be a no-brainer, but it’s a really big deal to a lot of people. There are plenty of other friends who are “risk-takers” like me, but just as many who haven’t driven a car since they came to Seoul. Actually, this same attitude was very common in Japan as well, but there, the driving was on the other side of the road and the driver’s side is on the right. It was challenging to drive in Japan for a number of other reasons, different from those here, which I may get to write about sometime.
For now, though, I thought I would try to tell you a little about some of the extreme driving challenges I encounter here in Seoul. For the record, I still drive my Japanese mini-van in Korea so I’m driving on the American side of the road but my steering wheel is on the right. It presents a few difficulties, but amazingly, it’s not much of problem for me at all. It’s harder to change driving from the right side to the left side within the car than it is to change the side of the road. Other than a few challenging visibility issues when I’m turning right, it’s no big deal.
There are several other things that happen while driving that do make things a challenge. First, it seems ( from an outsider’s perception) that most traffic lights in Seoul are optional, as are pedestrian crosswalks. I say with with a hint of sarcasm and the fundamental understanding that I am not fluent in Korean, and I understand little about the mindset of Korean people and the underlying cultural meanings of behaviors. As a foreigner and newcomer to this country, all of these things are curiosities to me. These are the types of things that make me wonder. So, from my unenlightened perspective, the color of the traffic light is sometimes meaningless. For example, if the light turns red, you can continue to drive through it if no one is coming from the side street. You can also stop for a few seconds and once the cars from the side have passed, you can choose to run the light at that time. Pedestrians can cross whenever they feel like it, ignoring the red or green crossing lights at their discretion. You can’t turn left or U-turn at some green lights without a special posted sign that tells you it is ok. In fact, under these conditions, if no one is coming for miles, there’s not a car in sight, the light is green and you wish to do a U-turn in a designated u-turn lane, you cannot proceed with your unauthorized u-turn until you get a green arrow. However, for some unexplained reason, once the light turns red, it’s apparently ok to do your “illegal” or “unauthorized” u-turn. This boggles my mind every time. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why someone would restrain to break the rule on a green light, and then proceed to break the same rule on a red light. It seems to me, if you’re going to break the rule, doing it on a green light is the obvious choice. I wish someone would explain that to me.
A second thing that makes driving here potentially disastrous is the intersection free-for-all that takes place at most busy intersections. Here’s how it works. You’re in a lane and the light turns red. Three or four or five lanes of traffic stop at your red light next to you. Like most intersections around the world, lines aren’t drawn across the intersection, right? They pick up again when you get to the other side. So, in Seoul, once the rows of cars enter the intersection, it becomes a massive free-for-all of chaotic lane changes and maneuvering. If you TRY to stay in the lane you left in, (which I have tried to do numerous times) you will most definitely end up in an accident unless you give in and maneuver around to find a new lane on the other side. It is sheer madness. Cars on both sides of you weave in and out of one another like swarming bees only to pick up just a few feet later in a new or different lane than before. Last night I tried, again, to stay in my own lane throughout the intersection. I was just going to “see what happens.” I followed the path in a straight line only to look to my left and see the side of a taxi cab that was so close to me that my passenger could have leaned out the window and licked the side door. I gave up and swerved with the tide of cars.
Besides these two driving curiosities, there are countless other situations that add stress to driving in Seoul. For example, motorcycles are not held to any of the traffic rules of the road so they can drive up behind you on your left or your right and speed through gaps in lines of traffic. If the roadways are too crowded, they can even be seen driving on sidewalks. They can cross at pedestrian crosswalks and then continue on the road again once on the other side. They can run red lights at will, go the wrong way on a one-way street, cross train tracks after the bars have been lowered, and, also, they can get severely injured in the process. I have seen a motorcyclist collide head on with a city bus — not pretty — and I’ve seen co-riders on the back of motorcycles sitting on the pavement in the street after having been popped off the back of the bike. What’s worse is that helmets are often not worn and many times you’ll see a sweet young girl in her sleeveless blouse and cotton skirt holding on for dear life to her boyfriend’s waist as her high heeled shoes slide against the foot rest. Sometimes I find myself wanting to roll down my window and say, “Can I just give you a ride to wherever you are going?”
The last driving stressor that I’ll mention (even though there are at least 20 more I could name) has to be the horns — oh, the blessed horns. Every day, every where you go, beep, honk, honk, beep. It’s as bad as New York City — actually, it’s worse. If you don’t start driving milliseconds before a light turns green, you’ll get beeped at. If you let little old men or ladies cross the street at a crosswalk, you’ll get beeped at. If you graciously let someone merge into your lane, you’ll get beeped at. If you leave more than a foot between your car and the car in front of you, you’ll get beeped at. However, if you cut off other drivers, no one beeps. If you never allow someone to merge, no one beeps. If you change lanes causing another car to have to veer out to avoid hitting you, no one beeps — ever. The more cut-throat you are as a driver, the less people react. The more generous and gracious you are as a driver, the more people show their intolerance. At least, that is my impression of the reactions I get to these behaviors. My Korean teacher says is has something to do with the “bali, bali” attitude of Koreans. This means the “hurry, hurry” attitude. Everything should happen fast, making people wait is frustrating, everything should be done as quickly as possible. And it’s true, wherever we go, it’s easy to hear people saying, with a push of their hand, “Bali, bali, bali!”