Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Driving in Korea

Driving in Korea has been quite a learning experience. Let's talk a little about that.

On driving in general (the rules, the cops):

First, I mentioned in the post about my car that driving rules here are more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules. Sometimes you see people following the rules obsessively, other times you see people blatantly disregarding the fact that THERE ARE 4 PEOPLE WAITING TO TURN LEFT, BUT BY ALL MEANS, SPEED AROUND THEM AND LAY ON YOUR HORN ALL THROUGH THE INTERSECTION SO PEOPLE KNOW YOU'RE COMING, the rules weren't made for you.

You might even see people running red lights in front of cops. Or getting in fender benders in front of cops. And they never. get. pulled. over.  (On that note, I've never seen cops doing, well, anything that I'd call police work... ever... so what do they get paid for? They won't intercede on a battered wife's behalf during a domestic dispute, they don't stop a man kicking the snot out of his dog, they don't carry guns... really?? But I digress.)

La la la. Back to the point. 

Marli shared some of her observations about driving in Korea and graciously allowed me to repost them:

I think I have driving in Korea down to a T. I think I have worked out the 10 basic rules to surviving on Jeonju's roads.

1. A red light can mean stop or speed up, depending on how rushed you are, it's up to you.
2. A red light with a green arrow pointing left also means, turn right.
3. The white line at a four-way is the Korean version of a stop sign, but this should be ignored at all times.
4. Never use your indicator, just relax your arms or use them for more important things, like talking on your cellphone, texting or changing the channel on your car TV. Where you are going is your own business.
5. Parking is a breeze, just stop anywhere, preferably as far into the middle of the road as possible.
6. If you are waiting in line to enter a busy road, always try your best to cut in, especially if the car before you has been waiting for a long time.
7. Never give other cars who are trying to change lanes a gap.
8. If the car in front of you doesn't move the split second the light changes, honk loudly and furiously. The louder your horn, the better.
9. Never nod or wave thank you when another car stops to the side to let you pass.
10. And the most important rule - Taxis ALWAYS have right of way.

EASY PEASY!! Right? (-:

On never giving other cars a gap:

My first weekend driving in Korea taught me a lot. I thought I might be about to die a few times, but by the grace of God I did not. Marli's observation about not giving people a gap to enter? SO TRUE. It's true of both highway and city driving. The only thing I can figure is that it must not be taught when folks learn to drive. My first weekend, I tried to enter the expressway (in the dark, no less) near a really busy area of Gwangju and no one, not a single car, moved to the passing lane to let me on. I was about to be driving on the barricade when somehow I got squeezed into the lane. I'm still not exactly sure how I made it with all those oncoming lights, but I managed to fit!

I've noticed that when I'm waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic to turn into the lane, cars behind me get very impatient. Sometimes they honk and I'm like, What? Where do you want me to go? Want me to get hit by oncoming traffic? THERE ARE NO GAPS. Other times they just buzz around (scaring the crap out of me, by the way). You see, I try to wait for a moment when I can enter the lane and not disrupt the flow of traffic.  I've realized that that's so foolish! I should just turn and make the oncoming traffic slow down or change lanes, because by gum, I have a right to drive wherever the heck I want. Right?

Cars do that to me all the time. I'll be cruising in 4th gear down a road, no one in front of me, no one behind, but - oh wait - yes, that car decides to turn into my lane RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, causing me to slam on my brakes and screw up my momentum, rather than wait the extra 3 seconds for me to pass his perpendicular road and give him a free shot at the then-empty road.  Rude.

I've come to the conclusion that it's just not expected to be courteous to other drivers, but it isn't considered impolite here; there's just a different expectation of courtesy.  In the States, I've been taught *not* to disrupt the flow of traffic (as much as possible). I've been taught that if someone wants to enter the expressway or road, you move your car over to the passing lane and let them on. If you can't scoot over, slow down a bit to be nice and give them a gap.

Cultural. Difference.  

The phrase "it's not wrong, it's just different" comes to mind. Except... is it not wrong? I don't like the idea that I should just throw my own car (and life) in front of oncoming traffic (What if they don't notice me? What if they hit me?), but if that is expected behavior, then am I being discourteous to the cars waiting behind me when I don't get in the way of oncoming traffic?

I don't know.

I don't want to find out.

On turning lanes and signage:

Another thing that is, well, "interesting" about driving in Korea is turning lanes. When you begin driving, you might encounter a white arrow painted on the road. I have figured out that this generally means 1) you must turn from this lane, or 2) you may turn from this lane but you don't have to, 3) you can go straight or turn from this lane, but if you get in this lane when there's a taxi coming who wants to turn right, you better have the ability to make your car smaller so he can squeeze past you to turn, but maybe it's 4) you can turn from this lane but once the light is green you can get in this lane to pass all the fools who have been waiting in the "go straight" lane.  If you experience #3, then you can also move your car into the pedestrian crosswalk in front of all the cars who have been waiting in line, blocking said crosswalk, and no one will be the least bit fazed by your lack of foresight with the whole "oops I was in a turning lane, man that taxi driver is angry with me" thing.

The signage is a little lax on telling you when you must turn and when you just may turn.  I generally consider a "turning lane" as a "maybe turn lane" unless the road straight-up ends just ahead, in which case it's obviously a "must turn lane."

Korea uses the same white arrow symbol (with a sharp, 90-degree angle) for turning lanes at a 4-way intersection with traffic lights AND for exit ramps on the highway, whereas I'm used to a curving arrow for exit ramps.

Speaking of lanes with no signage, sometimes your lane will end in the middle of the road. Say the road is 5 lanes across: the middle lane (3rd from either side) disappears. With absolutely no warning. One second it's a lane, the next second it's blocked off with yellow stripes. So there you are at a stop light going "Um... so I'm not in a lane anymore... guess I should move over? The crosswalk in front of that long line of cars looks like a good place for me to go." So much fun.

Speaking of signage in general, sometimes you'll see a sign on the expressway that says "Jeonju - turn right" and then there's an off ramp. So you take the off ramp cause you want to go to Jeonju. Only you took an off ramp to a dirt road into someone's farm, not the exit to Jeonju at all. The exit to Jeonju was 1 km AFTER the sign that said turn right. Of course. (Full disclosure: usually these signs say "Jeonju - turn right" with a little bitty "1 km" at the bottom, but when you're new at this and reading half in Korean, you don't always notice the number at the bottom of the sign. But if you're paying close attention, you'd realize that the ramp directly after the sign was not 1 km later, only 200 m, so you shouldn't have taken that. Silly you.)

On taxis:

Taxis don't follow the rules. They do whatever they want and you had better be prepared to avoid them when they want to be where you are.

Drivers often have televisions in their cabs, which they usually watch while at stop lights or waiting for passengers, but some of them watch while they're weaving in and out of traffic. Be aware. Wear your seatbelt.

On parking:

You can park anywhere you want, except when you can't.  You can pay for parking at the bus terminal, or you can park on a side street for free. You can be obnoxious and park on a main road (thereby blocking a lane of traffic on a busy road), or be a little more thoughtful and park on a side street and walk an extra 100m to the shop you want to go to. You can park on a curb on the corner, blocking everyone's view of oncoming traffic, because that's a good spot to leave your car (not that anyone could see the oncoming traffic anyway, cause the shrubbery that's been planted along the road has bloomed and you can't see through the leaves).

You can park anywhere you want except when you can't.  

You might receive a little paper someday that has pictures of your car and a note that you can't read. Your Korean friend might kindly pick up this note for you at the post office (since the Korean post left a note telling you they couldn't deliver it since you were at work) and hang on to the note for a while until she sees you again. By the time she gives you this little, seemingly innocuous note, it might have already passed the deadline.  You see, the seemingly innocuous note is not innocuous at all.  You tried to park somewhere out of the way, but it seems that you parked in a No Parking Zone. There may have been signs. Probably in Korean.  You didn't notice. You were new at this whole thing.  Oops.  No wonder there weren't any cars parked on that block. Good thing the CCTV was watching; I'd hate to have cars parking all over the place, willy nilly, being in the way and stuff.  So now you have an obscene parking ticket, higher than those the campus cops loved giving out at Texas A&M. (I might have gotten a few of those in my day. Anyway....)

So you get this bill from the Official Office of You Can't Park Here, you take the bill to the bank to pay it, find out you can't pay this bill at the bank; you must pay at the post office (of course; how come you didn't know that?).  You take the bill back to the post office (from whence it came) and try to pay it, only to be told "No, you can't pay this." But... why? "This date is already past." But... ok... I'll pay the late fee? *calls Korean friend to help translate because sign language can only get you so far* Oh ok, so I have to take this bill to the district office to get a new bill, with the late fee, then I can come back to the post office and pay it? That makes perfect sense.  I'm sure.  To someone. ...else.

There's something about yellow lines that means you can or can't park along the street, but no one pays attention to those rules, so... what? Parking where you see you other people parking is generally a good plan.

On personal space:

Much like people walking down the sidewalk, drivers are not super aware of what is going on behind them or in their blind spots. When I was 16, I was taught to check my mirrors every 6 seconds or so, in rotation, so that my eyes were constantly scanning the road in front, to my right, to my left, and behind me. One of my western friends was checking her rear-view mirror every so often and a Korean friend expressed surprise: "Why are you looking in your mirror so much? No one does that."

Yet another thing that's extreeeeeemely different!

It's pretty common to see a car start to change lanes into ANOTHER CAR. Somehow - SOMEHOW - they avoid an accident. It's a 6th sense or something! Drivers - and this goes back to my rant about leaving a gap for fellow drivers to turn or change lanes - drivers are hyper-aware of what's going on in front of them (but not behind or to the side). It's actually incredible. I've never seen people react so quickly to people getting all up in their way. If you saw cars cutting each other off and changing lanes INTO ANOTHER CAR'S SPACE in Houston, you'd see WAYYYY more accidents (and lemme tell you, there are accidents alllllll over the place in the Houston area, every day. Just try to get anywhere on I-45 at 6 pm. Right.).

So, for example, you're driving along, minding your own business, when a car decides she wants to be in your lane, in your very space? You somehow feel her move into your spot, so you naturally avoid contact by moving into the next lane, narrowly avoiding yet another driver whose spidey-senses told him you were coming and (likewise) he narrowly avoided hitting you by slowing down. I don't understand it, but praise the Lord that it's there. ***Especially important to have your spidey-senses in high gear when you see taxis***They WILL get in your lane.***

On pedestrians: 

They're everywhere. Most don't look where they're walking. Jaywalking is an art form. Crosswalk? We don't need no stinking crosswalk. Crossing the street, don't check right and left to be sure there isn't a car coming. It's a wonder they're not all hit.

*20 points for hitting pedestrians -- but only 10 if they're old (and slow)*

I've become a much nicer pedestrian since I started driving. It's amazing how your perspective can shift so quickly! I've got a lot more compassion for drivers, that's for sure. 

On toll roads:

When you set out on the open road for the first time, you'll learn really quickly that that icon on the highway - which looks just like an interstate highway icon in the USA - means "expressway" which is another word for "tollway" (apparently).

You can get a HiPass tag to breeze through tolls, which I will hopefully get before too long, or you can make sure you have enough cash on you to go through the lanes with the windows and the clerks.

When you enter the expressway, you drive through an interchange that spits out a ticket. When you are ready to exit near your destination, you drive through an interchange where you pay your fee, based on the distance you've driven since you received your ticket. It's a pretty smart system.  The interchanges are interesting because, unlike the millions of on-ramps and off-ramps that I'm used to, you have one or two means of ingress and egress on the expressway per major city. That alleviates a lot of bottle-necking along the way, with the added bonus that you get from cars slowing down to receive tickets, which thus spreads out the flow of entering or exiting traffic.  (The flip side is that if you follow your little blue dot on Google maps to the expressway that you want to be on, you'll be sitting on a side road staring at the expressway overhead without a way on. Then you have to drive along parallel to the expressway until you find an interchange. But you learn really fast to watch for Honam Expressway IC signs.)  

The first time I went from Jeonju to Gwangju, I had about chun won (roughly a dollar) on me, which (oops) wasn't enough. I needed a little over 4,000 won (close to $4).  I asked to pay with my bank card, but that's not allowed, so the window clerk fussed at me in Korean and then told me to go park over there. Ok, I figured, I'll go over there and (since she waved my card around in irritation while she yelled at me) maybe there someone will come and let me pay with my card? Maybe they'll have one of those cool credit card portable gadgets with all the buttons?

So I pulled through and parked where she had gestured. And I waited. Some more cars came by and parked. Then drove off. Then more cars. So I realized that no one was coming to charge me, so they must take pictures of the license plates and send you a huge fine. Greeeaaat. Live and learn, thought I.

As I expected, I got a bill not long after. I opened the bill, expecting a huge fine for being dumb enough to drive on a tollway without any cash, but - what's this?? My bill is for 4,100 won? Why, that's the exact price of the toll! They didn't punish me for being foolish? The highway gods have smiled on me!

I took my little bill to the bank and forked over my toll fee and voila! I'm free!

Live and learn, my friends, live and learn.

Parking tickets will sucker punch your wallet, tollway tickets will be proper gentlemen.  Who would have guessed?

In conclusion:

Driving in Korea has been a great experience so far. As with learning to do anything in a new culture, there's an expected level of culture shock.  Some things are great, some things are annoying, but mostly they're just different.  You get used to it.  I've learned a lot, and been frustrated by a lot, but I already love the relaxed approach to rules around here.  Last weekend, one of my friends told me that I drive like a taxi, so I'm gonna take that as a complement. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Korea, get with the "guidelines."

I am the foreigner. Please understand. Though I've vented my opinions on this page, it is not my place to tell others how wrong their way is when I'm the one in a new (driving) culture. I didn't take Driver's Ed in Korea; an international permit will do me just fine. More often than I'd like to admit, I'm sure I'm the one in the wrong. Sure, some things drive me nuts, but if I'm honest? Some things drive me nuts about driving in the States. Apples and oranges are both round fruit, right? 

But it's quite a learning curve.

I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into this expat's perspective on driving in Korea!


  1. I havent finished reading through yet, but because I am afraid if I forget what I want to comment, I comment now. It seems to be critical first of all.. I am so sorry to hear that. Although I am not driving, I know some about it. I think people here they consider how fast you are is more important than how safe you are. (I am not sure if you know the fact that Korea's car accident rates is the highest among OECD countries.)

    As a good example, the texi drivers!
    They are always right cuz they are used to high speed. and they know when u are suppsoed to ignore the rules.

    You said that 'it is wrong'. Yes. It is wrong. There are so many problems in Korea that people already know it is wrong. U dont have to hesitate to say it is wrong. I feel ashame becuz this blog is not for Korean, but for all your friends.

    By the way, I am not saying that all Marli's rules are incorrect. Here is my opinion. We dont always ignore rules. I can say that we think being fast is more important than rules itself. I do agree with her, but sounds like we all are crimials TT

    Whatever I hope you drive safely in Korea.
    God's eyes on you alllllllll the times as u know. :)

    1. Oh, dear! Please don't feel ashamed! It is critical, but there are things that are *great* about driving here as well. I hope that it doesn't come off as too harsh, but there are a lot of things that could be done differently for safety's sake (and that goes for any country, not just Korea!)

      My goal was to record my observations as an outsider living in this society... some things surprise me in good ways, some things just don't. That's life!!

    2. Im interested in outsiders' observations. It is very fun to read ur blog scripts!!