Korean rules of the road

We made it back to Seoul from Gyeongju today without incident.  We had a great trip, but we’re glad to be home.  I’ll tell you more about it tomorrow, but in the meantime, here are some thoughts I wanted to share with you about driving in Korea (in case you ever decide to drive here).  After driving down the entire length of the country and spending 11 hours on the road, I discovered some new things about driving in Korea I did not know.  While driving through the Korean countryside is not too different from driving in the U.S., it still requires a bit of a paradigm shift to get the hang of the unique aspects of Korean driving.

  1. Big brother is always watching you.  Imagine driving with no police around to ticket you.  You can drive as fast and free as you’d like, right?  Wrong.  There are surveillance cameras posted everywhere along roads in Korea, even on backroad highways.  The Koreans are even nice enough to alert you when a surveillance camera is approaching.  "Police Enforcement 500m" signs are posted all along the route.  Well, that’s awfully nice of them to let you know there’s a speed trap coming.  Unfortunately, they come up every 2-3 kilometers, making driving a stop and go affair.  If you’re caught speeding on camera, you’ll be mailed a ticket.  Even if you’re going the speed limit, the cars around you always seem to slow up before the surveillance cameras.  After awhile you get used to it.  Still, as an American who prefers some privacy, the thought of being under near-constant surveillance while driving can be unnerving.
  2. Hazard lights mean trouble ahead.  I like this one.  Traffic jams happen so frequently here that Korean drivers use their hazard lights on the freeway when they have to slow down suddenly due to traffic congestion.  This lets drivers behind them know that traffic trouble lies ahead, theoretically decreasing the number of rear-end collisions and multi-car pile-ups.  I’m sure it makes a difference.
  3. The arrows in the driving lanes don’t mean what you think they mean.  It took me a long time to figure this one out.  When you’re driving in the far left and you come upon an arrow in your lane pointing to the right, it does not mean your lane is ending.  It means you need to move over to the far right lane to exit the freeway or tollway.  Lane arrows in Korea generally tell you how to exit the freeway, not what will happen to your lane.  When you see the U-turn arrow while driving in the middle lane, don’t make a U-turn.  Go to the far left lane to make a U-turn.
  4. If something is broken, build another one.  This one amazes me.  All along Interstate 1, the main north-south tollway, we drove through construction at a snail’s pace (80 kph/50 mph).  Along the way I literally saw a parallel tollway being built.  Rather than repair the existing road, Korea apparently decided to build a new freeway.  It seems a bit overkill to me.  The roads are generally great in Korea, perhaps because the country has meticulously invested in its transportation infrastructure.
  5. Yellow plus green equals two stoplights.  If you see two lights at a stoplight, remember that the one on the left tells the left turning lane what to do, while the right one tells through traffic what to do.  A left arrow plus green means that left-turning and through traffic can go, while, a yellow light on the left and green on the right means that left-turning traffic should stop.  A single green light means only through traffic can go.  Red still means red. 

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