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Driving in Korea vs. America

June 24, 2009

There are definite differences in the Tao of Driving between the USA and Korea. In America, the rules of the road dictate our behavior. Drivers follow most of the rules most of the time. In the USA I’m always irritated when a car changes lanes or turns without signaling first, because it doesn’t happen relatively often.  I can effectively predict the driving behavior of most of the drivers around me, most of the time, and this gives me a sense of understanding and control over my environment: the car in front of me is in the outside lane, and is slowing with his signal on, so I know he’s about to turn off onto a side street.

In contrast, Koreans do not feel compelled to follow the traffic rules (according to the law, pedestrians have the right of way at a crosswalk, but have you ever seen a driver respect that?), for a number of reasons. Their driving behavior is less predictable. Because they don’t know what the other drivers are going to do, I think Korean drivers have a greater awareness of their environment. American drivers have rules and expect the rules to protect them (nobody turns left from the right-hand lane on a multiple-lane road, right?). Korean drivers don’t rely on (or follow) rules, just what they can see (i.e. anyone may do anything at any time, so a driver must be vigilant).

I’m not saying one way is better (and I certainly was trained in the American way), just that they are different. And I’m a little afraid to drive in Korea because I think my American training may be inadequate to drive here.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2009 9:01 am

    This is an interesting post, and I definitely think you’re right. I also think another factor is that Korea became a country of drivers much later than the US and other western countries. The reason I think this affects people’s driving habits is because in the west developed driving infrastructure and laws over a far longer period of time, and new developments were brought in for specific reasons; speed limits when cars became fast enough to cause a lot of injuries. The seminal cheap mass-produced car, the Model T Ford, was first produced in 1908. If we take that as a starting point, the west has had a century to develop good driving habits, create and develop laws that are effective and are brought in because the general consensus is that they’re needed, and basically develop a good driving mentality.

    In Korea, on the other hand, they picked up the laws, infrastructure and, well, cars, all in one fell swoop in terms of the general population. So, when they first came in, they had no relevance to what people knew or had experienced, they didn’t have so much time to develop rules to match the state of the driving culture as that developed, people just suddenly were driving. I think this has to have something to do with it. I know I haven’t explained this very well!

    Basically, if you’ve ever witnessed a road in Vietnam or somewhere similar, where the majority still don’t drive cars, and the roads appear to the outsider to be chaos, imagine if all the pedestrians and people on little bikes were replaced with drivers – no matter how many laws were brought in to regulate the roads, they’d be a mess, people would drive cars the way the ride their scooters there now. It’s not their fault, and like you said, it’s not wrong, it just seems to me like it would be an inevitability.

    Sorry for the overly long and incoherent post, but I do think this is a very good blog, I’d like to see you post more!

    • June 25, 2009 11:22 am

      I think you’re right. If we think about the history of US legislation regarding traffic safety, It was about 60 years before we had a national speed limit, 10 more for a national seat belt law, and 25 more before we had strict carseat laws for kids. All of those laws came from civic groups advocating for them. Korea has the highest traffic fatality rate in the OECD, and it is likely that they’ve been driving for the least amount of time in the OECD too.

  2. Marilyn permalink
    June 27, 2009 10:04 pm

    That’s a really interesting way of looking at this difference. I’m also American, and had pretty much thought Korean driving was flat-out bad and wrong, but I’d never considered the its side effect of creating more vigilant drivers. Hmmm. I’m curious what Koreans who move to America think of our driving – any idea?
    I don’t want to drive here either. It bothers me so much when people don’t follow the rules of the road that my stress level would go through the roof.

  3. Joe permalink
    August 17, 2009 12:51 pm

    I learned to drive in the US and when I first came to Korea, I had a lot of bad things to say about Korean drivers. Yet, within a few months, I grew accustomed to Korean driving, and now I like to drive here much more than in the US.

    In Korea, both parties are held accountable in accidents whether you followed the rules of the road or not. Thus you have people doing whatever they can to avoid accidents. Someone cuts you off? So what, they drive on without getting as riled up as we Americans do. In the US, you have some people who take advantage of the law hitting you while changing lanes and slamming on the brakes because they’re annoyed at someone tailgating. Lane changing is so much less stressful in Korea.

    Forget everything and give it a fair shot. Korean driving can be very fun.

  4. Korean permalink
    July 6, 2011 9:58 am

    You guys are racist bastards.

  5. ffwcar permalink
    October 25, 2011 9:48 am

    koreans shouldnt be allowed to drive at all. end of story.

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