Driving in Korea is a whole new cultural experience all on its own. I would argue that you have to actually do it to know what I am talking about, but I will do my best to explain. The 16-year old girl in me, who once got a ticket for going 60 in a 40, and thought driving a real car was like driving a Dave and Buster’s simulation race car, has been pumped to drive in Korea. The 31-year-old woman, who is forced to ‘adult’ 5 days a week at a real job, kinda… KINDA… hates driving here. So let me break down the good, the bad and the ugly for you!
When I first got here a girlfriend (shout out to Rachel Warner) of mine gave me a piece of advice that I think about all of the time, and think it is probably one of the most valuable adages regarding driving in Korea. “Don’t do dumb $h*t that will cause an accident.” I will point out why this makes sense throughout the blog.
DISCLAIMER: This post, IN NO WAY, condones breaking the law, nor should it be considered guidance on how you should drive in Korea. This is my personal opinion and experience… and should be taken as a fun opinion piece ONLY!
DISCLAIMER 2: I would also like to note that being aware and attentive while driving here in Korea is far more important than in the States. Texting and driving is an EXTRA no-no here. You should also be careful fussing with your radio, iTunes, navigation etc. You will see more people with their phones properly mounted in their cars here. With all of the illogical, nonsensical, unpredictable driving around here, looking down for even a second could be life or death.
Also, I would like to mention that where I live is near the US Army Garrison (USAG) Humphreys, which is in the boonies. We are located in the country, farmland. South Korea said, give us back Seoul and we will build you a fancy post in the most polluted and undesirable area in the country… and we said, “good deal!” I will write a post about how South Korea paid for USAG Humphreys another time. I will make a few mentions about the traffic and craziness of driving in Seoul, but most of my experiences with driving are out here in the “sticks.” It is the difference between driving in New York City and driving in Peyton, Colorado. Same country, totally different kinds of driving… I mean obviously.
People park their cars anywhere and everywhere. Two-lane streets usually end up being one-lane streets with a parking lane. There is very little infrastructure planning going on in this area. Which is a crying shame since this all used to be farmland and this whole area is being built up from scratch. This would be a good opportunity to fix some of the issues, but instead, buildings are being built on top of other buildings, and no one is taking any consideration for parking. In the States, there are standards for how many parking spots buildings should have… here there is probably nothing. And if there is something, no one is following it. With cars being parked willy-nilly, sometimes you feel like you are in a game of Frogger or some other video game, where if you make it to your destination you win, and if you make it without dents or scratches, you get an additional +10 points.
2. Running red lights
Yep… run them! As Rachel said, “don’t do things that will cause an accident,” and in Korea, sometimes the catalyst for the accident is stopping at the red light, not running it! I $h*t you not! If everyone else is flying through the red light and you are one that stops, you have now caused a potential accident. “Well isn’t that dangerous Lily?” Not really. There is no logical infrastructure planning going on in this area, as I said before. I heard somewhere that anyone can get a streetlight on any street if they submit a request to the city. In some areas, you have three lights within a half-mile distance going into someone’s house. These lights are not on censors, they are on timers. So there is no one waiting, no one coming, the length of the light has nothing to do with the traffic volume… so you could be sitting at this non-sensical red light for up-to five mins. Blow that ish girl! You don’t want to be the tool that stops at them. People will literally drive onto the wrong side of the street to go around you, and give you the staredown, they may even honk at you… yelling at you from the safety of their own car. There are definitely intersections that you know you should not run the light. Very quickly you will come to know which ones you should never stop at, and which ones you should never blow. This is a totally different story in Seoul.
3. Long a$$ lights
Getting to work on time in South Korea is cruel and unusual punishment. I live about 6 miles, door to door from work. Reasonably I can leave my house 15 mins before 8am and get there at 8am. That is baring one, very annoying issue: Red lights. I can not figure out what the hell is going on with the lights in this country. There are far too many of them, sometimes off of a person’s house on a lonely dirt road. To make matters worse, the lights are forever long! Like 5 mins long! If I hit two red lights on my way to work, the 15 min drive has now become a 25-minute drive!
There is a sign that indicates what intersections you are legally allowed to make an unprotected left turn on a green light. Otherwise, by law, you can only turn left when there is a left arrow. Sadly, there are intersections where this sign should exist, and it doesn’t. So you find yourself sitting through this loooonnnnggggg drawn-out light cycle, sitting at a green light, with a clear view that there are no cars coming. Many of us would just go ahead and make the unprotected left. In the States, we do this all the time. All lights in the States allow the unprotected left unless otherwise indicated that you cannot. In Korea, making left turns seems to be a sore subject for many drivers, well turning in general seems to be a challenge for many Korean drivers, more to follow. If you are not the first person in that line, you are gonna sit through that beautiful green light and wait for the arrow, and this can be a long a$$ wait!
Then you have this issue with the Korean drivers who are making the right at the same intersection that you are making the left. In the States, the oncoming traffic has the right-of-way, so the person turning left should wait for the person to turn right to take their turn. If there are two lanes, both drivers can technically turn at the same time, into their own lanes. You always know when it is a Korean driver because, as you wait for them to take their lawful right turn they slow all the way down, and frequently stop. Now you are both stopped, looking like dorks. If you do what I do, and have been driving here for a while, you don’t mess around with their nonsense and you just make your left turn… you prob don’t wanna get stuck behind that Adashe (grandpa) anyway. Or you politely wave for them to go, since it is technically their turn. Or you have one of those, “you go,” “no, you go,” moments. No matter how you look at it, this is the most unnecessary instance of confusion, brought to you by Korea.
Right on red:
See the above statement. Say you are now driving behind this person that is causing this unnecessary confusion… what do you do? Wait patiently for someone to make the first move? Or if you have been here a while, like I have, honk at the mo-fo and throw your hands up in the windshield and yell, “GOOOOO,” as if anyone can hear you. This is also a good opportunity to tell you to be careful. Because all of this nonsense going on, driving in Korea is less predictable. So it is always important to be alert.
This is one difference in Korean streets that I actually like. You are allowed and suggested to make U-Turns way before the light. Not that people are really following the color of the lights… but you are also able to make u-turns when the light is red as long as there aren’t any cars coming.
6. The Light Cycle is Different
This is hard to explain except to say that each side of the street gets its own round of lights. As explained above, the left turn signal has its own nuances. Since each side of a 4-way stop gets its own turn, these super long lights are what contribute to the red lights taking forever… you have to wait for all three side’s light cycle to pass… which is why people run them all the time. In the states when there is a green left arrow, it will be green for two sides at the same time… not here.
Even in the driver’s ed training class that they provide on USAG Humphreys, as we have to get a license to drive here after 30 days, the video states that roundabouts are new to Korea, and therefore no one knows how to use them. First off, imagine how annoying people are about roundabouts in the States, then multiply that by 20. Or imagine everyone approaching the roundabout suddenly morph into a nervous 15-year-old on their first drive. Their hesitation when entering is like, “so do it stop here? No? So I will just creep into it and then spaz out cause another car is now in here with me.” If there are two lanes in the roundabout, forget about it, they are gonna cut you off. The best bet is to just stay a car length away from anyone else in the roundabout. Notice that I did not say “The Koreans” even once in this section… you guessed it… the Americans are just as guilty of this dangerous jack-hole behavior. Considering all the issues with the lights, roundabouts are an elegant solution, sans the fact that no one really knows how to get through them. ALSO, some of the roundabouts are totally crazy. Like what psychedelic drug where the road engineers on where they developed some of these? Some of them are just out-right ridiculous. Sorry, I couldn’t find a good picture.
There is no way I could do this post without addressing my biggest issue here… speeding. Let me start by saying, I lived in Germany for 3.5, and drove the autobahn to and from work 5 days a week. Oh, the glory of letting my brand new BMW loose on an unencumbered highway. Nothing stopping me or slowing me down for miles. If you have never experienced the adrenaline rush of legally driving 120 miles an hour in a car that is built to do that safely… you are missing out. Then we move to VA where it seems like speed limits are nothing more than a suggestion. In VA people get pissed at you for driving the speed limit. I always justified my speeding there as, ‘driving with traffic.’ Not to mention the highways in VA are a cool 65-75 miles an hour.
Not here in Korea though, especially out here in the boonies. The highway speed limits here are 60 miles an hour (100kmh), if you are lucky, usually 80kmh! Truly, you want to stick around that speed because the roads are paved like $h*t. You could easily hit a disguised dip or bump in the road and bottom your car out. I have found myself in a last-minute reaction where I think I just massively screwed up, squeeze my breaks and clench the you-know-what out of my teeth… and then nothing! It is totally unpredictable.
Cameras: There are speed cameras everywhere and they are labeled on the signs. You know when one is coming, so everyone is cruising at whatever speed they want and then collectively slams their breaks on to go under the cameras. I would assume that this causes accidents sometimes, but people are so used to it. In fact, every GPS app or system tells you when you are coming up to a camera, or when you are in an average speed check zone, and they are surprisingly accurate. The speed cameras are pretty easy to spot too. They are either above the head or in these boxes on the side of the highway, with flashing police lights. There are also camera speed traps where the speed actually changes as you approach a camera. Gotta pay attention… chances are the person in front of you is going to slam on their breaks in reaction to this. If you get caught by a camera, you know because you will see it flash white or red. You will hear people say, “I got flashed,” they mean they got a speeding ticket.
Unlike the autobahn, but similar to the States, the left lane is supposed to be the passing lane, but instead, people are just doing whatever they want. You have people driving below the speed limit in the left lane and other people passing them on the right. It is chaos.
Busses have their own lane on the highway, but everywhere else they are the king of the road. They will cut you off and pull right out in front of you. Busses are known to be a pretty effective form of travel so they speed like crazy. You bounce all over the place inside of them, but hey, if you plow over a little k-car in a bus, you’ll barely feel it.
The speed bumps here are almost always a surprise. The regular street speedbumps are painted yellow with white stripes. But sometimes the flat ground is painted this way, so you slow down expecting a speed bump, and there is nothing. It’s like when you think that there is going to be another step at the end of a staircase and there isn’t, you have that awkward moment where you have just reacted to nothing. Some of the speedbumps are huge, and some are small, some are sharp and some are flat. Some are made out of pavement and some are made out of plastic or metal and temporary.
10. When Lanes End
Finally, last but not least, the lanes end on both sides of the street, left and right. For the most part in the States, lanes end and merge on the right only. I try to drive in the center of the road but two streets later I might be all the way in the left lane. It can be very surprising, and I can’t tell you how many times I find myself in a turn only lane and have to pull some ninja move to get out of it. Especially in Seoul. You really don’t want to mess up your driving when you are in Seoul or other cities because it can be really difficult to correct. If you are using Waze and it reroutes you… you could end up on a tiny street where cars are parked on both sides, and you are not earning those extra bonus points because you are probably going to scrape up both sizes of your car on the tiny street!
Food delivery mopeds are everywhere, and they don’t follow any laws. They don’t drive on the highways, but you need to be aware at all times in case one of them blows a red light, cuts you off, drives between two lanes, etc.
Young children, like 6 yrs old, walk or ride bikes in the street. While they are very responsible with this adult task of getting around, they are still kids, and kids can be unpredictable and/or dumb.
Flashers mean “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” When someone cuts you off, or you let someone in, they will turn their flashers on for a few seconds to acknowledge the situation.
Koreans love white cars. I am guessing because it hides the pollution and pollen best.
Yellow buses are school buses, and sometimes they are super cute, like with big eyes painted on them, or look like huge bugs. But don’t let that fool you, if there aren’t kids on that bus they will drive like the insane A-hole normal busses.
Finally, driving in Korea can be really overstimulating. With mopeds, people, buses, and other cars (parked or not) seeming to come out of nowhere, the lanes ending abruptly, not ever knowing where you are going… and all the huge crazy signs. It can be a lot to take in at one time.
With all of that said here is a link that explains the drastic decrease in accidents and vehicular death’s in Korea over the last two decades. I would also like to take a moment to mention that “Asians” being bad drivers, is technically routed in the different cultural standards concerning driving and road laws.
Thanks for coming back and reading more about South Korea, drop me a comment, let me know what you thought of this post.
What do you think about driving in Korea?
What is the craziest thing about driving where you are from?
Also, let me know what else you are interested in learning about!