There is no other way to say it: South Korea’s car culture is chaotic.
Drivers frequently blast through red lights, make abrupt lane changes without signaling, speed through school zones, fail to move out of the way for emergency vehicles, put children on their laps while driving, and engage in a host of other dangerous behaviors.
And all of this says nothing of the way motorcyclists behave.
Lest the reader scoff at my observations, one needs to look no further than the statistics to see the truth: The average number of automobile accidents in the OECD is 71 per 1 million people; in South Korea, it’s 120 per 1 million people. South Korea’s rate of traffic-related deaths, at 105 per 1 million people, is the second-highest in the OECD, only slightly behind Poland at 109 per 1 million.
At the other end of the spectrum, the UK has the lowest fatality rate, at 31 per 1 million.
Equally troubling is the way South Korean motorists park their cars. A casual stroll most anywhere will reveal cars parked in spaces for the handicapped without the proper permit, in fire lanes, outside the lines of the parking space (in effect taking up two spaces as a result), in the middle of pedestrian crosswalks, on sidewalks and even in the right lane of a road.
This last situation has the effect of making many four lane roads into two lane roads, as people park in the right lane in each direction.
There is strangely no social stigma attached to this kind of inconsiderate parking in South Korea: An apparently perfectly able-bodied person can park in a parking space for the handicapped without the necessary permit on the windshield, and no one will so much as give the offender a dirty look. When a car is parked in a way that blocks traffic on a busy road, motorists simply go around. If you point out to a parking lot attendant that a car is parked in the fire lane, he will shrug and say, “So? There’s no fire.”
While all of these parking infractions are de jure illegal, enforcement is so lax that de facto they are not. On occasion, one will see a parking enforcement vehicle drive around, but in spite of the fact that these areas have “tow-away zone” signs everywhere, only small fines are issued.
Once in a while, parking enforcement vehicles – conspicuously carrying a big camera on the roof – can be seen patrolling the streets, but not only is this also rare, only offences involving the blockage of traffic on public roads are enforced. Parking lot attendants occasionally put “Do not park here” stickers on the windshields of illegally parked cars, but this does not always happen.
And it is true that a passer-by can take a photo of a car illegally parked and send it into the relevant authorities, but more often than not they are ignored.
When I bring up this issue with South Koreans, the most common response I get is a cop-out: that this is not the West, and that I should understand that South Korea is a developing country. What is curious about this defense is that, at least in my experience, it is given by the same people who boast about South Korea’s rapid modernization: They’ll trumpet South Korea as a developed country on par with any other when it is convenient, but excuse, at other times, bad behavior on the basis of its supposedly developing status.
Another excuse is that there simply is not enough parking and people have no choice but to park illegally. Like all good lies, there is a kernel of truth to it. While it is true that there is nowhere to park in some cases, most of the time there is a private parking lot nearby; that people do not want to spend a few thousand KRW is not a good reason to take up an entire lane.
Also, it has nothing to do with people who park in handicapped spaces without a permit just because they are too lazy to walk from the other side of the parking lot, nor does it excuse taking up two spaces, nor so many of the inconsiderate parking behaviors that occur so frequently.
All of this may strike some as expat griping. But bad parking is a serious public safety issue in South Korea, not just blocking traffic and causing inconvenience but also preventing emergency vehicles from reaching accident sites. It can cause deaths and property damage. In one extreme case last year, fire trucks could not approach a blaze in the city of Uijeongbu because 20 illegally stationed vehicles were blocking a crucial alleyway. Four died and 126 were injured in the raging fire as a result.
Inspired by the kind of stickers parking attendants and security guards glue on illegally parked cars – the National Assembly is famous for its particularly strong stickers – I have produced my own version, to be used by anyone to shame those who not only park without permits but also park in ways that are inconsiderate and inconvenience others. Rather than merely saying “Do not park here,” the sticker features a variety of phrases that are meant to embarrass the driver.
My favorite one is “I am the kind of human trash that parks without a permit in a space for the handicapped.”
This is not a new concept: In Russia, vigilantes have used similar stickers to deter drivers from invading sidewalks and idling their cars on the street.
While vigilantism should never be encouraged, there is a certain sense of satisfaction when ordinary people stand up for what is right. Shame is a powerful tool for changing behavior in South Korea. If the government continues to be negligent in enforcing parking laws and regulations that they themselves made, people might rise up to defend law and order.
Editor’s Note: Opinions contained in this piece are the author’s own. Korea Exposé does not endorse them by publishing his writing.