Friday, 4 February 2011

Ten Facts about Driving in Seoul

So a little while ago, Grrrl Traveler rented a car for a five hour road trip, and came back with these ten observations about driving in Korea.

The most relevant one:

You need either an international driver's license, or a Korean driver's license, to drive in Korea.

Fortunately, getting a Korean driver's license isn't too difficult, actually.  Simon and Martina from Eat Your Kimchi  (and aren't their early videos cute, compared to the polished stuff they make now) go through how to get one from a driver's examination center.  The Constant Crafter also describes that process.

Fortunately for you if you're Seoul based, the Seoul Global Center makes it even easier than it was before: the one in Itaewon, or the one by City Hall, will take you through it pretty easily.

You'll need a little cash, your alien registration card, your passport, a few passport size photos, and your driver's license from your home country.

The other thing Grrrl Traveler got right, is that GPS is hella useful here.  Seoul has TONS of roads.  Apparently you can pay a lot more for a GPS that speaks to you in English... but to save the dough, it just takes a while to get used to reading the GPS visually, and tuning out the Korean until your listening is good enough to make sense of it.

Well, readers, after getting married, Wifeoseyo and I got a car, and after getting it, I drove to work, about a thirty-five minute drive (if traffic is light), for ten weeks.  We've also driven out of town, to various places in the nearby provinces, and as far as Gyeongju, in the six months or so we've owned the car.

So here are my own observations about driving in Seoul:

1. Driving in cities is just batshit, period: if you lived in a small or medium-sized Canadian town, and moved to NYC or LA, you'd say "Americans can't drive" just as surely as you would say "Koreans can't drive" if you moved to Seoul instead.  If you move to Seoul from a small or medium sized town, never forget that some of the things that are culture-shocking you are not about Korean culture, but about urban culture.  City driving is nuts, compared to driving in the towns and countryside, and the number of cars you come across inevitably increases the chance you'll meet some dumbass drivers, or some jerk-ass drivers.  Don't go saying "Koreans can't drive" without figuring that in.

2. Like dating, driving follows different logic in different countries.  For people who always drove, or dated, in one driving/dating climate, the way it's done makes sense, for that context.  Take someone from one context and put them in another, and things get sketchy.  It's not that aegyo doesn't make sense in the context of Korean dating, but it doesn't make sense to this Canadian.  Same with driving: put a Korean who learned to drive in Korea on Vancouver's streets, and that stereotype that Asians can't drive makes sense, not because Asians can't drive, but because they're driving by a different set of rules.

I've spent a little time in other countries, and they follow different logics in different places, too: in Canada, honking the horn most often means "I really don't like what you did." (not for kinda: only for really) in the parts of China I visited, they usually meant, "I see you there, but I can't, or won't slow down for you."  In Vietnam the horn just meant, "Aay, buddy! I'm here."  In Korea, honking the horn means either "I don't like what you did" or "Move along, buddy: let's go."

So while I have almost ten years of driving experience in Canada, I had to learn how to drive in Korea.  If I drove the same way I did in Canada, I'd hesitate and shoulder-check myself right off the road.  Once again: it's easy to say "Koreans can't drive" it takes a bit more effort to figure out how Koreans do drive, and roll with it.  And you have to.  If you follow the rules from back home, YOU'LL be the one who's making the mistakes, because you don't fit in.

3. Lines on the road: One of the biggest difference between the way Korean drivers handle themselves on the road, and the way Canadians do, is how we abide by the lines painted on the road.  See, Canadians are sticklers for the road signs and the lines on the road much more than Korean drivers in the city, who straddle lanes more often.  On the other hand, Canadians expect all drivers to follow those painted lines and signs so carefully that they don't pay as much attention to what the other drivers on the road are doing.  People on Korean roads, for the most part, are much more aware of what the other cars on the road are doing, because one of them might weave into their lane at any time.  Anticipation here is much better.

Plus: Koreans know the dimensions of their cars way better, and can park their cars in mad tiny spaces.

4. Buses are scary: Not just because they're so darn big, but because they move in and out of lanes.  The right lane is always a wildcard, because there are taxis, scooters, and buses dodging in and out.  Pick the middle or left lane.

Anybody who's lived here for a while knows that bus drivers in Seoul (I can't speak for out of the city) are way better than they used to be, as are bus lanes.  It's much less often I have to do that bus-driver drunk-walk to the back of the bus, where it looks like I'm off my gourd because I'm compensating for so many changes in speed and direction from the bus driver.

However, when a bus wants into your lane, it's still scary.  Every time.

5. Bikers are even scarier:  See, the bus drivers?  They've been trained to drive their buses, and they drive all day, every day, and many of them have been bus drivers for years.  Bikers?  Many buy their bikes because that's all they can afford, often it's the first road vehicle they've ever owned.

So you get these bikes, which can weave in and out between cars, driven by drivers who aren't as experienced at reading the road and anticipating traffic.  When they're bobbing to the front of the line up at a red light, that's alright.  When they're on the sidewalk, that sucks for pedestrians, but in my car, it doesn't affect me.  But when we're all in motion, and they're still popping in and out of lanes, it's scary as hell, because they appear out of nowhere, and when it's car vs. bike, the biker loses, and I really don't want a careless biker plastering himself across MY hood.

6.  People in expensive cars with dark tinted windows are the biggest assholes:  Yep.  People in small cars are more likely to be driving the first vehicle they've owned, and thus less attentive/aware, because of that inexperience, so you've got to be careful around them, but people in expensive cars - the Ssangyong "I'm A Big Deal," the Daewoo "Freud," the Hyundai "Long Car Important Driver," and all the imports with dark tinted windows know that, because of the way car insurance works here, people REALLY don't want to have even a tiny finder-bender with a really expensive car.  A lot of owners of those cars drive with the sense of entitlement that comes of knowing other drivers don't want to touch them, because they'll get the short end of any kind of accident.  You are likely to get cut off, or have your lane invaded by an inattentive driver of a cheap car, but you're more likely to be intentionally, brazenly cut off or around, or  nearly hit by the yellow-light-running, impatient daring of an expensive car.

7.  There's really, really no need to drive a car into town.  None.  Parking, traffic, traffic, parking, parking, traffic, traffic, parking, parking, traffic, parking, and gas prices.  Only if you really need to.  Given that Seoul has one of the best subway and bus systems in the world, you almost never do.

8.  The farther you are from subway stations, the more fun, varied and interesting the city becomes.  But because driving in Seoul is such a pain, I recommend bicycles.  Folding bicycles fit nicely on subways, there are a few shops near Hongdae, and a few near Apgujeong, where you can get a folding bicycle for less than 500 000 won.  It's worth paying the extra for being able to carry it more easily on a bus or a subway.

9.  You've got to assert yourself... but take some time getting used to how that's done.  What do I mean? People don't give you space on the road: you have to take your space.  This is done by indicating with your car - nosing in, or drifting partway into the lane - so that people know where you're going to go, before moving all the way into your space.  It's similar to how you can help people not bump into you when you're walking in a crowd, by setting your shoulders in the direction you're walking.  The turn signal helps, but you've got to take your space, and indicate that you want it.  Nobody gives it to you.  Spend some time driving more cautiously on the roads, to see how other drivers do this, before getting too assertive.

10. I think I know why the Car on Pedestrian Death Rate is so High - There are countries that have more traffic accidents per 100 cars or 1000 drivers than Korea, but Korea's usually first or second in car-pedestrian fatalities.  And it's because people tackle side-roads and lanes near apartment blocks and pedestrian areas, where kids play, with the same "Look at my big car" entitlement, aggressiveness, and impatience, as they tackle big thoroughfares where nary a pedestrian steps.

So that's what I have to say after half a year of driving in Seoul.  It's been fun so far, it can be stressful, but for the most part, Seoul's infrastructure is pretty good.  Driving here will improve your awareness and anticipation, by necessity, because anything can happen, and will.  And sometimes, you just have a "stupid driver day" when every dumb driver on the road seems to come across your path.  Whee!


Chris in South Korea said...

Nice post. Having never needed to drive in Seoul, I can only comment from the walker and biker of me. Regarding the latter, I stau on the sidewalk or as far right as possible because another asshole thinks the bike lane is hia personal parking lane.

Regarding the former, if you get to clothes-touching territory, you will get a glass bottle or fist on your hood. Don't really care how expensive that shiny car was. I only have one body.

Traveling Hawk said...

A very interesting analysis, Rob. It may be used on a seminar of cultural differences :)

DC said...

I'm a former non-driving resident of Seoul who now lives in Washington, DC. Our region has been rated by the insurance industry as having the worst drivers in the USA (statistically). My own experience is that the most horrendous DC area drivers (in terms of rudeness and complete lawlessness) are African-American women. But I make a habit of asking cab drivers their experience and they unfailingly say well-to-do Korean women are hell on wheels.

Anonymous said...

So what you are saying is:
1. Koreans are not as bad drivers as I may think based on your own observations, not mine
2. It's not that koreans drive badly, it's we dont understand the korean culture of driving
3. Bad driving is the same everywhere based on your 19 years driving in canada and 2 week vacations in other countries.
4. Korea has the best public transport system in the world

Really deep man. I care not a bit that you love everything about Korea, but please do not try to water down the very real and very true observations of others. Of course you will come back and say something along the lines of "well if you dont like, leave" or maybe not now that ive written this. However, the thing people like you do not seem to understand is people who complain are showing their love for korea way more then you ever could. We are trying to highlight problems in an attempt to solve them, not simply saying "yes this is bad, but its bad elsewhere too, so its ok.

By doing this, not only are you not helping to solve the problem, but you are actually contributing to it. But hey, whats a few more deaths, etc as long as you don't upset anyone, anyone korean that is.

Keep up the awsome work


Anonymous said...

10 years in canada not 19, sorry

Roboseyo said...

Hey JR:

1. how much driving have you done in Korea?

2. why don't you read the whole post - including the part where I discuss which Korean drivers are assholes, which ones are scary, and my own theory about Korea's high car/pedestrian death rate, before you jump to your conclusions about what I'm trying to say about Korean driving?

3. If you have other observations about Korean driving, why not state them, instead of attacking the straw man you've manufactured by making assumptions about what I'm saying, from skimming the post?

for example, the part where I write that driving in different countries is different (not that bad driving is the same everywhere)

a very good driver in one country might become a bad driver in another country, if they don't adjust to the different flow of driving in a different country.

4. why don't you also read around the rest of my blog, where you'll find me frequently hold the "if you don't like it go home" argument up as one of the most unhelpful statements to bring into a conversation about Korea, before projecting the idiot k-defender onto me?

5. and until then, treat me and other commenters here with respect, or you'll find your comments promptly deleted.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about the word 'commenters' but anyway, I can't really see how I disrespected these individuals when I did not mention them. I was disagreeing with what you wrote, if you take that as a lack of respect, then er, sorry sir, perhaps you should not write such drivel on a serious topic when your opinion is so obviously tainted by your desire to please others. Oops, was that disrespectful?
Anyway, Keep up the awesome work.

Roboseyo said...

You still haven't provided any observations of your own. You're criticizing the writer instead of the points made. Ad hominem is boring, and you've never met me. If you disagree with me, state your own observations about driving in Korea.

"people like you" - please. describe "people like me" (other than "your desire to please others" which you have already projected onto me) and then tell me you're respecting the author of the post. You assume a lot about a person you've never met, and whom you've clearly not even bothered to read carefully.

Sarcasm and name calling "drivel" "really deep, man" are unwelcome, and will be promptly deleted.

Once again:

How long have you driven in Korea?

What observations do you have to make about driving in Korea?

Feel free to draw emphasis on ways your experience is different from mine.

Any comments that do not answer those two questions will be deleted. You bore me.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, i thought this was your blog. You have a comment section, i presume for people to leave comments, but it appears you only want people to write that they agree with you.

I am criticizing you [the writer] not the comments! Not sure how to reply to that, as it was you who wrote the comment and i did critize the comments.

I am not attacking you, merely stating that i think it's wrong to tell people not to say "Koreans can't drive" based on your own and more than slightly tainted opinion. Of course, if what you wrote was based on studies etc, that would be different.

Answers to your demands:

No.1 I've been driving every day in Korea for 12 years

No.2 My observations include the fact the Korean drivers rarely use their indicators to indicate whether they are turning right or left. Korean drivers using the hazard lights for no obvious reason. Korean drivers running red lights and blocking other lanes of traffic simply to gain an extra 3 feet, regardless of the dangers or the obvious fact that by doing so they are contributing to the bad traffic they are speeding to avoid. Of course, these things occur in other countries, but having driven in other countries for a number of years including the US, UK, Germany, and Brazil, i can say from my own experience that they occur much, much more here. Lastly, there appears to be no give way rule here, even for people when crossing the road.

These are just off the top of my head, and of course there are positive things too, but that is not what i was asked.

Sorry if you don't agree with these, and that is your right. However, i find it quite incredible for someone writing about driving in korea to not even mention any of these points as everyone i know who drives here have noticed the same things. Of course, that is unless you are lucky enogh to have never witnessed these, or, as it more likely, have other reasons not to include them.

Anyway, hope this answers your questions. As for boring you, well, er, again, not sure what to write to that, i could retort by saying something about your blog, but am far too dignified to do so.

In regards to the 'people like you comment' i really didn't want to state Korean apologist as i think the term vague and in some ways inaccurate, but that's the best i can do. Ad hominem, please, the term is being used far too much to attack people who write things others do not like.

Like i said, its a comments section on a blog. If you just want people to agree with you and say lovely things, then say so.

However, it is obvious that you have taken offence to my comments and for that i aplogise.

Awsomely yours


Roboseyo said...

There's a world of difference between:

"Don't go saying "Koreans can't drive" without figuring that in."

which I said, and

"Don't say "Koreans can't drive"

One is saying "take further information into account in order to make a more open-minded decision" the other invalidates an opinion. You have given support now (after being asked twice) for your opinion on Koreans driving.

And I have also observed everything you mention, and some of them count as what Kimchi IceCream called "DOA"s - "Deliberate Obliviousness Acts"

If you've driven here for twelve years, good for you. You've obviously learned to accomodate the different way people drive here, which was the point I was trying to make.

I've seen some stupid drivers in my time here (go back to the final two sentences of my post), but as for reasons for not including them (and again, I thought I HAD covered them in discussing who was most likely to cut you off, or drift into your lane) how boring would it have been if I'd written just another dull post trotting out the same memes that expat blogs have beaten into the ground: "Yah Koreans can't drive" - that's barely more interesting than the rest of the tired tropes "Korean mothers are psycho and they can't think creatively and test culture is bad and everybody should work fewer hours to be more productive blah blah blah"

Been there done that, looking for a different take on things.

You don't have to agree with me: I frequently disagree with some of my favorite commenters here, like Seoul Searcher and This Is Me Posting, but providing specific support gives me something to respond to.

Thank you.


Love the Eat your Kimchi vid. It's so step by step and apparently, many are involved!

As you said- driving in a big city is just stressful, period. Kudos to you for getting a car after still knowing that!

Many have mentioned how Seoul driving is crazy, I'm still not sure I get it (the streets in Seoul are so w i d e). Bikers are what I thought gave power to that "crazy drivers" belief. For them, it's not that there's no rules; it's that they "break" them in the most obvious manner!

BTW- thanks for the mention. ;)

Rodney said...

Hi Rob.
Since moving to Seoul 8 months ago i have enjoyed reading your blog, but this is my first comment,I also drive in Korea & have done since my arrival.A little bit inside Seoul but mainly when i visit my companies other locations outside Seoul. Agree that driving here is similar to other big cities & certainly much better than China!!!
However police enforcement needs to be steeped up as some egregious driving does happen.Hardly ever does someone use indicator lights, Taxi in particular parking on Cross walks (i am tempted to walk around with a baseball bat)Bus drivers who dont seem to care that anyone else is on the road.
Certainly the standard of driving in Korea is far from the worst in Asia or anywhere in the world, but it does fall below Japan,Singapore, Australasia, Western Europe, North America.I think it is not lack of Drivers ed or skill but lack of any visible police enforcement to make sure people do follow the rules that exist.
PS my Baseball bat is also tempting for food delivery motorcyclists who spend more time on the side walk then they do on the road!

Joe in Korea said...

You can use an international license in Korea only if you don't live here. If you live here, you need to get a Korean license.

(Int'l licenses require you to keep your passport with you, so if you run into trouble, they can pretty easily see your visa stamp in your passport... not really worth trying to wriggle your way out of it).

I've been driving here for about 8 years. My first two years in Korea, every time I rode a taxi, I paid close attention. When I finally did buy a car, I used everything I learned!

Driving here is crazy, but it does have its own flow. Once you learn it, it isn't so bad.

I've now moved on to my second car, this one a black German import with the dark tinted windows. It really is amazing how people do treat you differently. I wonder if it has something to do with the whole Confucian thing of everyone having their place in a hierarchy, and if you are in the big black European car, you must be higher. (Taxis are the exception, as they simultaneously maintain a place at the top and the bottom of the hierarchy in some sort of Confucian miracle)

I have a few blog posts on driving here that some people might find interesting.

Bob said...

I drove cars, motorbikes and scooters in Seoul and all over Korea for 5 years. Once you have actually been run over on a motorbike by a Korean, you will never again feel guilty about saying, "Koreans can't drive." Or perhaps I should say,"Koreans can drive but they display reckless disregard for the lives of others." It's up to you which one is more damning, but I am damn glad I left the country before I ended up as a statistic.

Bob said...

By the way, I got a Korean Driver's Licence the hard way: by doing the road safety lecture in Korean, the written test in English, and the course test and road test in Korean. I find that these articles and videos about "How to get your Korean Driver's Licence" always assume that people have a DL from their home country, but not everyone does.

Bob said...

By the way, the straw that broke this camel's back was watching a six-year old girl get run over by a bus that had inched into a crosswalk on a red light at an intersection in Ansan. Yes, slow as molasses Ansan. Really important to move ahead six feet in that backwater town, but the bus driver was a) male and b) older than the girl so I suppose she got what she deserved. Life is cheap in Korea.

Simon said...

Ahhh! That video's so old :( Thanks for linking it, though :D

palladin said...

The biggest thing to remember is that over here "rules" are really just guidelines. Every single car on the road can be a batshit crazy old man / women who will just do whatever they want, including run over you, just because they believe themselves entitled to acting that way. My worst enemies have been older male taxi drivers, they have no respect for anyone else on the road and will always try to punk you out.

kushibo said...

The secret to driving in Seoul (and elsewhere in Korea) is to assume that everyone else on the road is an idiot who is about to do something completely out-of-the-blue.

Most are no more of an idiot than you are, but then you'll be completely prepared for the ones who are.

Ditto with driving in Italy.

Roboseyo said...

Well said, Kushibo.

Unfortunately, the ones who ARE idiots don't have a sticker on their car indicating that's what they are.

Unlike in my brother's hometown:

gordsellar said...

Yeah, I don't want to get into a big debate about this, but there is one data point to add, and it's nothing new but weirdly it's absent from your points. I'm afraid I don't look at Korean driving culture in such a culturally relativistic way as you, because, well... you know, that depressing statistic that won't go away.

And as someone who used to cycle in Jeonju--where people actually drive like absolute maniacs--I can also attest to the fact some of those pedestrian deaths are due to pedestrians doing stupid things. You can shout, honk, howl at pedestrians from behind when they are in the so-called "bike lane" (which is a red part of the sidewalk in most cases) but as they live in Korea, they have learned to tune out loud noises and never actually notice. Just today, in a friend's car, we had some kids run out in front of the car without even looking at us approaching. They seemed to figure in numbers was safety or something.

(Which also suggests kids maybe aren't taught road crossing rules with the kind of frightened, chastening zeal we were taught when I was a kid.)

Now, you have a point that, when I get into a cab driven by a Korean, the dangers I face are usually from the cabbie being mentally ill or violent or something; they seem to handle the stupid behavior of other drivers better than my Western friends, who, no matter how long they've been driving here, retain some faint hope that others will start following sane, sensible road rules.

I mean to say that you're right that one has to adapt. But sadly, one has to adapt to what is a mess, even by its own standards. (It's not as if the actual road rules are so vastly different in Korea; the difference is that so many just ignore them with absolute impunity... and yeah, I think the main problem is that impunity. Interestingly, I've heard that during the dictatorships, people were far more orderly on the road, not just because cars were fewer but also because the stakes for screwing up were so much higher.)

Anyway... I don't feel comfortable seeing it purely as a "culture difference." There has to be room to point out something that just ain't working, in any culture. (Korea's, as well as our own Canadian system.) The commenter who mentioned the girl in Ansan provided a clue for why the cultural relativist response doesn't feel right to me.