Driving in Korea, Part 2

December 12, 2014

So you got your driver's license and managed to score a deal on some beater of a car (I wrote about how to do both of those things here!). Now it's time to get on the roads. If you aren't at least slightly anxious about starting to drive in Korea, then you've clearly never ridden in the back of a Korean taxi.

After driving (or simply living and observing life) in Korea, there are a few differences that can be seen between the roads of Korea and the roads of Canada.

Let's start with the obvious: Korea has a lot of people. In terms of population density, Canada's has 3.4 people per squared kilometer, while Korea has 487. Combine this with the fact that only about 30% of Korea's land is habitable (with the other 70% being mountainous) and you have a good idea of what to expect on Korean roads.

With the amount of cars on the road, it's no surprise that drivers need to be aggressive if they plan to get where they want to go. The culture in Korea is also generally fast-paced, so drivers tend to be in a rush. It wouldn't  be wise to expect the majority of cars to yield to you. That isn't to say, however, that drivers are devoid of manners; if someone cuts you off or if you do them a favour, they will usually signal an apology/appreciation by using their hazard lights. Hazard lights, while seldom used in Canada, are quite commonly used in Korea whether to signal an apology or signal to other drivers that you are in the process of parking.

Upon seeing parking in Korea for the first time, I was both stunned and impressed. This is, hands down, one of the most difficult parts of driving in Korea. Unlike in Canada, there is rarely a proper parking lot (see: 30% habitable land) so cars are left to park on side streets, corners, and sidewalks. There are few places that cars can't park in Korea. Of course there are places which are marked with "do not park here" lines but these types of rules are not always enforced in Korea.

Road rules in Korea are generally pretty lax especially when compared to Canada. This applies to many aspects of driving from parking illegally to running red lights. While learning to drive in Canada, I tried to be aware of how I was being perceived by other drivers and did my best not to make a wrong move. In Canada, the police emit some sense of power over drivers and drivers generally follow the same set of rules. Although I have seen police on the roads with their lights on (which is just to show that they are on duty rather than pull you over), I have yet to see a car be pulled over by the police. Stronger than the police force on the roads in Korea is the threat of cameras which gauge speed and illegal parking. The cameras will snap a photo of your license plate and send the ticket by mail. What's interesting about these cameras is that all navigation systems I've used will alert you of speed cameras so you have time to slow down (and speed back up afterwards if you so choose).

With all of these factors considered, along with the unmentioned obstacles such as delivery motorbikes and private school buses, driving in Korea can present some challenges for people coming from countries such as Canada. I am in no way implying that Korean people are less able to drive, but rather that their current circumstances have led them to drive the way that they do. With the limited amount of space, people are forced to be more aggressive and less considerate. With the lack of rules being enforced, people feel less obligated to follow them. As time goes, the country will continue to progress (as all countries do) and hopefully we will see some improvements which will make roads in Korea a little more safe. But for now, as long as you exercise caution and slow down for speed cameras, you'll be just fine.

Other notable differences:
  • Highway tollgates: When entering the highway, drive through the gate (not hi-pass/하이패스 unless you've subscribed to it) and receive a ticket. Upon exiting the highway, hand the ticket to the operator and pay the amount. Compact cars have a 50% discounted rate!
  • Traffic signals: Road rules in Korea are generally the same as in Canada. There are slight differences in traffic lights with the majority of intersections in Korea allowing only left turns upon an advanced green/arrow light. There are also separate red/green light signals which indicate to cars in the right turn lane whether or not they are clear to go across the pedestrian crosswalk.
  • Gas prices: Lately (as of December 2014) gas prices have been around 1670 won (1.75 CDN) per litre which is down from 1800 won (1.88 CDN) I saw a few months ago. Compare that to Canada which these days seems to be hovering around 956 won (1.00 CDN).
  • Gas types: In Korea you'll see three types of gas: gasoline [휘발유 (hee-bal-yoo)], diesel [경유 (gyeong-yoo)], and liquid propane gas (LPG). It's a good idea to know the Korean words just in case you come across a self-serve station. If at a full serve station, the workers will take care of it. Simply ask for a full tank [가득이요 (ga-deuk-ee-yo)] or a certain amount [2만원이요 (ee-man-won-ee-yo)].

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