By Whit Altizer
This morning, as I do every morning, I rode my bicycle to school. I was a little later than usual so I had to battle the between-classes-traffic that I usually try to avoid. Cars, bikes, buses and pedestrians all hurry to make up for lost time spent this morning drinking coffee, missing a bus or sleeping a little late.
I was going over my 9:00 class lesson plan in my head when I locked eyes with an oncoming biker riding in my lane. We looked at each other in the eye for what felt like a whole minute. Neither one of us slowing down or yielding. Then, like something off an episode of Jackass, we hit each other head-on at full speed (did I mention my brake pads need replacing?). The word that came out of my mouth right before contact? “DUUUUDDDDDEEEEE!” More in a “WTF” tone than a “you just did something awesome.” Maybe you would assume that.
Bumping into people is part of life here. The amount of people here compared to the amount of space available makes Westerners like me uncomfortable, but it’s a part of life you just have to accept or go crazy. In my first few months of living here I had bumped into, been shoved by and seen more cars banged up and more people lying in the streets after collisions than I have in my whole life in America. Ever seen someone get hit by a car? I have. My wife has several times.
So you could also safely assume that it also has a reputation for some heinous driving. Google “Korean driving” and you’ll see video from people’s black boxes of cars getting in the most ridiculous wrecks. Koreans often drive too fast (bali, bali!!) or under the assumption that no one else is on the road. Which doesn’t work on roads that are choked with traffic.
When I got up after smashing into this other bike, I really didn’t know what to do. Luckily, it was just a couple of idiots on bikes and no one was hurt, but it reminded me of how ill-prepared some foreigners are for accidents in foreign countries. We have a tendency to forget that the law and the customs also apply to us, especially when we get into an accident. There are tons of resources in English to get you familiar with what to do. See links in my tips below.
Here are some things to consider before taking to the Korean streets.
- Be insured and be legal. If you are a driver or motorcyclist you better have a license and insurance. Though I have never had to show my license it is important that you have one. If it is a small accident you’re likely to come to terms on some settlement money(some expats call “blood money“) without police supervision. In 2007, a friend of mine t-boned a car that pulled out in front of his motorbike (a motorbike my wife was on the back of..yikes!). The car seemed at fault to me, but my friend had no recourse without a license or insurance. At the time at least he was like many others who decided just to gamble for a year and avoid the hassle of getting street legal. These are things we wouldn’t dream of driving without back home and shouldn’t be without in Korea. Fortunately, the man he hit didn’t come up with a giant number off the top of his head, but drove my friend with him to a shop for an estimate. The man also saved my friend from some problems with the police. However, this is something common in Korea, pay the damages, stay out of court and move on. If you are a cyclist, cycling insurance might help you with your own injuries or equipment but probably not with someone else’s.
- Call the cops. That is, if you are insured and legal and you feel like it will help the proceedings. The cops should help you get a fair settlement, but it is common in the expat community to feel that the cops will never side with the foreigner. I am sure there have been some unfair judgments made by cops in Korea and will continue to be, but I’ve heard of more cases where cops have been fair to expats than not. Just be ready for anything. Click here for the Korean police website for foreigners. They have translators you can reach.
- Proceed cautiously. It’s crowded here and incidents where you think you’d be free from fault you aren’t. Take this example, where a cyclist hit a woman walking in a bike lane. The cyclist was liable for damages even though the woman was putting herself at risk by walking somewhere she shouldn’t. This happens all the time. Pedestrians walk into traffic certain you are going to stop. Old Korean ladies walk their oxcarts full of cardboard in the middle of the road. Pay attention. Be ready for someone or something to jump out in front of you. Seriously. It happens.
- Get a black box or GoPro. Having a black box on the dash of my car or a camera mounted on my bike feels like overkill. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have either. But I should. It would be very difficult for me to use my limited Korean to explain to the cops what happened and a black box would make it infinitely easier. These things are becoming way more common and most new cars have them. Also if the kid wanted to make an issue out of our wreck this morning I could have had video evidence that he was in the wrong lane.
- Walk or Take Public Transportation. We relied solely on taxis, buses, subways, our bikes and our feet before kids and it was dead easy. If you are only planning on being here for a year or two avoid the headache and walk or take public transportation. Korea has an amazing public transportation system that goes most places you need to go for cheap. Also, despite my experience today biking has always been my favorite way to travel around. But if you find yourself in a game of chicken with another bike. Move first. You might just save yourself some embarrassment and some money.