Sub-Standard Driving in Korea: Should it be Open to Ridicule?


asian driverIn case any of you hadn’t noticed, the standard of driving in Korea is not the best.  A recent Korea Herald article confirmed this a couple of weeks ago, reporting that Korea has the highest pedestrian death rate in the OECD (and this is not news, it has been like this for years).  I have briefly complained about the driving on many occasions on my own blog and on this site, but now I think it provides a perfect example of why it is right for us foreigners to criticise aspects of another culture and maybe even ridicule them.

Firstly, let’s deal with possible accusations of racism by pointing out this rather obvious observation.  Bad driving has nothing to do with being born with Korean genes, but it does have everything to do with their culture (i.e. how they think and behave) so to notice this is not being racist.

Everyone behaves as they do for a reason, however, so perhaps it is reasonable to think that Korean people could not drive any other way given their historical development.  As one commenter pointed out on a facebook thread I belong to the other day, Koreans have not had many years of driving cars, using elevators, and the rest as they are so recently developed.  Parents have not had time to be enlightened in these areas and pass the correct etiquette in these new situations down to their children; it takes time.

I have no doubt that this explanation is quite true; it is possible that we really have gone through it all in West – as a valued reader of my blogs pointed out the other day – the West has gone through some horrendous wars, suffered through ill-manners and bad times, while it has been more developed and has learned from it.  So, do we now sit atop a privileged position as the most enlightened ones, who should be listened to on every subject regarding building a civilised society?  I actually don’t think this, there are some things we get right and others that we get wrong.  When it comes to moral questions and civilised manners, however, I do think Western civilisation has made greater strides (Japan also stands out in Asia in the manners regard).  I do think that this therefore means that others can learn from us and our mistakes.  Driving seems to be the perfect example of how another country or culture can learn from another.  We are living in a globalised world now; travel and the internet has opened the ways for the sharing of ideas easily, there is no excuse for bad practices to continue in wealthy, civilised countries.

I’m British, so let’s take a very British cultural problem at the moment and compare with the Korean problem of dodgy driving.  Drinking culture in Britain, these days, is becoming a real problem.  The attitude of the people towards drinking is dire, especially in the 16-35 age group.  The main aim for the young adult population of Britain is to become as drunk as physically possible and then laugh together the next day about the hilarious consequences of it; the results are often fights, hospitalisations, sickness, vandalism, and other kinds of immoral behaviour.  This is a real cultural problem in England that is shared by other Western countries, but not with quite the same vigour.

This is a difficult problem to repair, but is an issue that I think is at least recognised by many people in Britain and by the media.  It requires a deep cultural change and there are things that the British government can do to help bring this about, but there is no quick-fix.  Many of us know what it is like in the UK and are ashamed when we think about how other cultures handle their drink compared to ours.

A section from a newspaper back in the early 2000s in Britain
A section from a newspaper back in the early 2000s in Britain

The problem of dangerous driving in Korea, on the other hand, is something that could be fairly swiftly remedied if it was widely recognised by the media and public, and treated with enough urgency by the government.  Tighter, regularly enforced traffic laws, with greater patrolling by the police in busy areas would certainly help; road safety campaigns could also be utilised to help pedestrians take greater care when they are out on the streets.  I have been in Korea now for nearly 4 years and I have yet to see one road safety poster in a school, one television advert, or even any real acknowledgement of the dangers of Korea’s roads (except the nightly news reports of car accidents).  Another reason for the poor driving is the ease of their driving test standards.  I have known several Koreans who were in the process of learning to drive and then passed their tests; it took about a week of theory and then two weeks of practice and they were done.  My wife only had about 5 or 6 hours of on-road practical tuition and she was able to pass.  On the evidence of her first few weeks on the road, this was not because of pure driving talent, it was scary to be sitting in the passenger seat at this time.  The fact that passing driving tests is so simple is a bit of a measure of the lack of seriousness all round on the driving front in Korea.

The government and the Korean people need not search for the best solutions on road safety, they could easily look to successful Western countries and their systems of traffic management, road safety, education, and driving test standards.  Simple steps such as these may begin to bring about a change in their culture of driving, but it seems as though, at the moment there are much greater priorities for the government and its people.  It could also be that cultural attitudes towards personal space, laid down over centuries, are not conducive to good driving.  Lack of queing, queue jumping, a lack a personal awareness and surroundings, and pushing and shoving are an annoyance when we are all just walking about, but they can be positively dangerous in a car.  Perhaps it would indeed take greater effort to enforce a culture change on Korea’s roads, maybe there is a great deal of work to be done.

This is where the criticism comes in.  Sometimes the best way to convince people to change their ways and recognise issues is to make what their way of thinking or doing things embarrassing to cling on to.  When others ridicule or make fun of our uncivilised or ridiculous behaviour we tend to have to change our minds about how we should behave.  If Korea as a nation came under enough pressure to change because of ridicule from outside, they might just have to change to save face, and as all of us who live in Korea know, saving face is fairly important here.

So for me, it is perfectly OK to poke fun at an aspect of somebody else’s culture to possibly effect a important change and what could be more worthwhile than saving people’s lives on the roads.  If we are indeed living in Korea it could also be a source of great self-interest, i.e. saving your own life in the future.  As a cyclist and pedestrian myself, I have had a few close-calls in Korea, so it is for my own benefit that the country moves forward in this department as well as for Koreans themselves.  Might I add that the same goes for my own fair country with regard to ridicule and shaming-out bad practices.  At the moment I have the feeling that British culture generally is seen with rose-tinted spectacles by the rest of the world, perhaps it would actually help the people of the UK to take some heavy criticism from outside for its thuggish Friday and Saturday night drinking culture and maybe it would shame some people into walking away from it (the general level of public intelligence is also something I fear is over-estimated by non-British people).  I think, though, that shaming national pride would be a tactic that could work significantly better in Korea and there is nothing wrong in doing this, if lives can be saved.  People come first, worries about upsetting a cultural norm come second.

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I am an Englishman currently living in South Korea with my wife, who is Korean. We live in a small city in the far south of the country, away from the major more westernized hubs of Seoul and Busan. My situation has given me a unique insight into the culture of South Korea and I am interested in writing about my experiences. The cultural differences between the Far East and the West run so deep and it is fascinating to be caught up in the middle of it all.


  1. I do agree with your point, but I can only assume you don't watch Korean TV. There are quite regularly shows which criticise poor driving and highlight road accidents.

    I agree that there is a problem, but I am not sure that stigmatisation is the right way to go – has that done anything to stop binge drinking in the UK? No, it has probably only given tabloid journalists something to scream about and create a moral panic over.

    • I watch the news, but I can imagine the shows you are talking about that criticise bad driving just like I have seen shows that are highly critical of the way people treat animals. The message does not seem to be getting through though, and a much greater effort needs to be made. What I see is a general lack of seriousness about driving and road safety among most of the population.

      The problem in the UK is that binge drinking has not been stigmatised, people do exactly the same as Koreans do with driving; they watch the programs, read the articles, say 'oh, how terrible' and then forget all about it. There is no stigma on getting deliriously drunk in the UK, it is the popular and fashionable thing to be seen doing. Journalists are right to be trying to create a moral panic over it. Have you ever walked sober through the average UK town on a Friday and Saturday night?
      My recent post English Speaking Competitions: All Status and No Substance (and Certainly No Learning)

    • No. Please enlighten us. That would explain, if true, why the lad is always in a huff. I suppose he thinks he’s the next DEBITO of South Korea.

  2. I have lived in Korea before for a year and i can attest to how horrid the drivers are, constant red light running, passing on blind corners, and a lack of regard for pedestrians and bicyclists. I have seen Koreans blow through a red light and t bone a car with the right away and then act like they dont understand why this just occurred. And i went out there with an open mind and trying no to hold onto stereotypes, but this one is true they cant drive. Its bad when passenger buses, both in town and long distance drive like nascar drivers. I live in Thailand now and its even worse here and their road mortality rate is higher, we had 3 motorbike accidents involving 4 students at my school and 2 kids died. Here you have people driving the wrong way, speeding, passing with cars coming, you name it it happens. I have witnessed Taipei's drivers as well and all 3 countries are substandard when it comes to operating motor vehicles. I come from California and our drivers ed isnt the hardest but we do have consequences for bad driving with strict enforcement policies, fines, mandatory insurance, and possible suspension of driving privileges, which is what it is a privilege. I think that the lack of credible enforcement, due to multiple factors in policing, easy standards for obtaining a license, if even needed, and culture add to the credible stereotype that Asians cant drive.

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