A crash course on crashing in South Korea
It’s intimidating enough for some American drivers heading outside the gates of U.S. military installations in the Pacific.
Roads are fraught with congestion. Landmarks all seem to look alike. And the many tight, narrow streets wouldn’t be large enough for one-way traffic in the United States, let alone two-way access.
Pedestrians and bicycles dart into traffic.
The prospect of getting into an off-base accident — where translation becomes an issue — adds more anxiety for U.S. drivers.
In some cases, particularly in South Korea, status-of-forces agreement personnel could be required to share in the blame, even if they are blindsided at an intersection while abiding every law.
“Stop trying to think about situations in which the outcome would be what it is in America. You can think about a million different scenarios, but in all of them, this is Korea,” said Brendon Carr, an American attorney working in Seoul. “I believe it's unjust, but what can you do? It is what it is.”
Accidents widespreadU.S. Forces Korea personnel are involved in about 1,200 traffic accidents in an average year, officials confirmed recently. They range from minor fender benders to fatalities and include all members of the community — the military, their family members, and U.S. and South Korean civilian employees.
If someone is involved in an off-base accident, experts say, they should stop their vehicle, call the Korean National Police and then contact U.S. military police.
Master Sgt. Gregory Dickerson of the Combined Joint Provost Marshal’s Office Law Enforcement Division said military police will respond to the scene of any off-base traffic accident.
And, he stressed, they' will bring someone who can translate. That’s critical for foreigners trying to deal with South Korean police, according to Carr.
“If you don’t speak Korean, you’re going to have no meaningful input in the police report,” he said.
The inability to tell their side of the story gives many foreigners the feeling they’re being “railroaded” when dealing with the police, he said.
The other problem, Carr said, is South Korea’s system of “blame sharing.”
Under South Korean law, any driver involved in an accident is considered partially at fault. If the driver had not been on the road, Carr said, South Koreans believe if the driver had not been on the road there would have been no accident, Carr said.
Fault is generally split at a 60-40 percentage, he said. If one party is clearly the victim, the breakdown might go as far at 80-20, but the accident is never entirely one driver’s fault.
That means a soldier driving his $300, 15-year-old Daewoo Prince who is struck by a South Korean driving a 2007 Mercedes will assume 20 percent of the cost of fixing the more expensive ride — even if he was obviously not responsible for the wreck.
The military is taking steps to combat some of those accidents, Dickerson said.
Yongsan Garrison’s Gate 7, the closest to Itaewon, is a notorious accident site, and it’s common to see drivers blow through red lights as cars exit the base.
He said base law enforcement authorities have been working with South Korean police to improve enforcement of signals near the gate, but drivers still should be careful. and He suggested using a “5-second rule” before exiting the gate when the light turns green.
He said traffic at Gate 1 after 5 p.m. also warrants added caution.
Settling on the spotIn cases with no injuries and only minor damage, it’s common in South Korea for the parties to agree to an on-the-spot settlement.
Dickerson said this shouldn’t be done until military police arrive so they can provide a voucher that proves a settlement was made.
And any military community resident charged by South Korean police in connection with an accident will be put on international hold — meaning they can’t leave South Korea — until prosecutors resolve the case, he said. That usually takes 45- to 60 days.
Civilian contractor James Cloninger, 32, was in South Korea less than a year before being involved in an accident. He was at a stoplight waiting for a left-turn signal when a van came barreling toward him in the oncoming traffic lane.
“There were three lanes of oncoming traffic and … this guy came on a fourth lane,” Cloninger recalled, adding he wasn’t really surprised. “I had seen that kind of idiot driving before.”
The driver crashed into Cloninger’s rental car, glancing off the driver’s side fender.
Cloninger wasn’t injured, and the driver asked him to make a U-turn and pull up behind the van so they could exchange information.
Cloninger called the rental car company and the owner chatted with the other driver. When he got back on the phone, the owner told him the men would fix the car.
Cloninger asked if he needed to drive it to a garage and was surprised to hear, “No -, he’s going to fix it right now.”
“As I was trying to figure out what they were talking about … they opened up the back of the van and they had like a traveling garage,” he said.
The men pulled out the dents and painted over all the scratches, he addesaid:.
“They fixed it in about 20 minutes.”
Later, he said, it was still apparent his car had been in a mishap and there were problems with the alignment, so he brought it back to the rental agency and traded it for a new one.
Like many people in South Korea, Cloninger said, he assumed he would be in an accident at some point.
But “I didn’t expect to be hit that hard,” he said.
Driving in South Korea can be an adventure
SEOUL — Edging into city traffic, I ease out of a U.S. military compound in Seoul.
Immediately, a mo-ped carrying five full-sized carpets on the back zips off of the sidewalk and into the road in front of me.
Forced to slam on my brakes, I blast the horn and watch in dismay as the driver makes a left turn against a red light.
A minute later, I have to straddle two lanes because a line of vehicles illegally parked in front of a bus stop. I’m not alone.
Welcome to driving in Seoul.
According to a December report by the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Seoul is the most dangerous place to drive among member countries. (For a full list of countries, visit http://www.oecd.org/ home/.)
The report, based on data from 2003, states that for every 10,000 cars on the road there were 137 accidents, and for every 100,000 people involved there were 15 fatalities.
Many members of the U.S. military community don’t need statistics to tell them how dangerous driving in South Korea can be.
“I got hit by a car once,” Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Pond of 303rd Intelligence Squadron said. “I was walking in a crosswalk and a car stopped. The car behind him didn’t know what he was stopping for and swerved around him and hit me.”
Pond said he wasn't hurt.
Patricia Beckwith, a military family member, said she sees a lot of problems when driving.
“There’s a lot of driving where there’s not really lanes, and cutting people off,” she said. “The most annoying thing is people parking where there’s no parking and I can’t get to my house. I assume that’s just how they drive in Korea.”
Capt. Michael Cushard, with the 2nd Aviation Regiment, was able to quickly list the things that aggravate him when he’s on the road.
“The disregard for the rules — stoplights, stop signs, cutting people off, nosing into traffic,” Cushard said. “You’ve got to constantly be on your guard in Korea. I just constantly have my foot guarding the brake pedal.”