I think the title of this post deserves a disclaimer. How Driving in Korea is Like the Mob (as I understand it from The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, and The Godfather trilogy).
I have a friend who says that driving in Korea is directly correlated to your level of happiness with this country. If you don’t drive, then you are not as likely to get out and about, which leaves you bored at home. While taxis and subways are great resources for exploring, there is an empowering feeling from driving yourself around this bustling city. I feel enormous pride each time I successfully drive somewhere new. I return home with war stories and feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life simply because I survived. I’ve driven myself around some big cities in the US (Dallas, Atlanta, and, less successfully, San Antonio), but none of those experiences compare with traveling around Seoul. In the midst of traffic the other day, I thought of these similarities and thought they were the best way to describe driving in Seoul!
5 Ways Driving in Korea is Like the Mob:
1. Rules are made to be broken, but some lines you never cross. The driving rules aren’t very different from the US. Red, yellow, and green lights. Don’t cross solid lines. Don’t speed. Don’t run over pedestrians. There are lanes designated with blue lines that are only for buses. Those are the rules; however, most of those rules are constantly broken. Especially running red lights. If the light is red, but there is a chance to go, then the Korean drivers will not hesitate to go on through the intersection. However, there is one rule that I never see a Korean driver break. Unprotected left turns are not allowed; you must have a green arrow to turn left or a special sign designating it is allowed. Running a red light? No problem! Turn left without a green arrow? NEVER! I try to be very observant of what rules the Koreans break and then just follow their lead. It’s worked okay so far. I think some Americans could easily become confused about the rules of the road. Simply because some rules are abandoned, does not mean that there are no rules.
2. You’re on my turf now. There’s a distinctive hierarchy of drivers in Korea. Taxi and bus drivers are the bosses and everyone else needs to show some respect. I will cut other drivers off in a heartbeat, but I never attempt to do so to a bus or a taxi. I tried once or twice when I was still learning my way around; I was quickly reminded of my place. Those guys have years of experience, authority, and driving skills that I will never compare to. They rule the road, and I meekly let them swerve in front of me and never say a word. However, I have much less patience for the pedestrians in my neighborhood. They will walk in the center of the road and always pretend to be oblivious to the fact that I am trying to drive by. They apparently feel they own the road when walking; maybe they are all taxi drivers on their way to their car?
3. The police turn a blind eye. The police are not an omni-present force in Korea as they are in the US. We’ve only seen a car pulled over once, which is very disproportionate to the number of rules we see broken. The police that I have seen don’t really appear to be monitoring traffic. It seems that the policy is “live and let live.” They will step in if it gets bad enough, but otherwise, they leave all these rule breaking drivers alone.
4. You have to take chances to get ahead. If you are the only one playing by the rules, the only one who never puts your needs ahead of others, then you aren’t going to last long here. You cannot be weak in this game; you will not be handed what you need. I quickly learned that I was never going to be able to get to the turns or exits I needed if I waited for the perfect opening. There is no perfect opening. Using your turn signal is a sign of weakness and other drivers will speed up to ensure that you do not get in front of them. You’ll never get a chance if you don’t take a chance.
5. Watch your back. Being aware of the road and other drivers is important anywhere, but even more in Korea. The Korean drivers can pull some very unexpected tricks, and you always need to ready to swerve, slam on the brakes or both. They will stop in the middle of the road, or there will suddenly be a broken down car (there are very few shoulders to pull over on). There is always someone crossing five lanes of traffic to catch an exit, or a motorbike weaving through the smallest gaps between the cars.
I have never seen driving maneuvers like I have in Korea. I have been sitting at a stop light and the car behind me will use the turn lane to pass everyone else and put themselves at the front of the line. I have seen people driving in the right lane and suddenly make a u-turn across 4 lanes of traffic. I think most people would experience intense road rage at some of the driving here, but more often than not, I am too shocked to be angry. I just stare, choose to be amused rather than angry, and smile at the constant reminders that I’m somewhere new.
Want to learn more about my life in Korea? Check out 7 Ways Life in Korea is like Teaching Preschool!