Korean Driving Rules
It might be easier to say there are no rules for driving in Seoul! The city is full of drivers, and each driver is driving in a race against time. Horns abound; they are used to make a statement, ie. “Get out of my way!”, “I’m coming!”, “You idiot!”, and so on. Red lights are optional in Korea. Yes, they’re there, but they’re optional. Taxi drivers and bus drivers have more right of way than ambulances and fire trucks, and one rarely sees a car getting stopped by police for speeding.
In all fairness, Korean drivers are simply in a different league from Western drivers. While Western drivers are taught to be defensive, Korean drivers are taught to be offensive. If you keep this in mind while driving, you’ll do well. There are no polite drivers in Seoul.
Speeding is not really an option for most times of the day because the traffic is quite congested, and expats generally feel safe riding on buses and in taxis, although they can be harrowing experiences. Late at night, however, when most of the traffic is gone, the speed limit is ignored and cars zoom past at alarming speeds. Pedestrians have no rights and they should always be aware of the traffic, even if they are using a crosswalk and the walking light is green – you just never know when a car will come out of nowhere.
Koreans drive on the same side of the road as in The United States and Canada, that is, the right side. Most roads and streets are multi-lanes to make for a less congested driving experience, although the roads are always busy regardless of lanes. There are specific lanes where one can make a U-turn, although on quiet roads you can do a U-turn just about anywhere. Other than this, the driving rules are much the same as those in any Western country.
It’s difficult to find any kind of parking space in Seoul – especially on the weekends. For large department stores and shopping areas there are specific parking areas usually found above or below ground, to save space outdoors. While there are no specific parking rules in Seoul, you should always park in designated areas (there are signs in no parking areas) and if you ever see a parking space outlined in pink, it is a “women’s first” parking space, meaning that if there are other parking spaces available, that space should be reserved for women drivers. A bit sexist, perhaps, but the Seoul government says it’s to make Seoul a safer place for women!
In case of an accident
Do not leave the area. It is always best, if you’re at fault, to settle the matter without getting insurance companies involved (specifically if no one is hurt and the damage is minimal). It may feel unlawful, but that’s just how it’s done in Seoul. If the other driver is at fault, it is always easiest to take money from them to cover any damages caused. For example, if someone backs into your car and makes a dent, they might just try to give you 100 or 200,000 won to cover the damages. It’s much more common and uncomplicated to accept the money. If it’s not clear right away how much damage has been caused, exchange contact information and contact them after, once you get a quote. While this practice may not be in line with your ethics or the manner in which accidents in your home country are dealt with, it is widely accepted and normal in Korea.
If the accident is more serious, it is important to obtain an English speaking lawyer immediately as Korean law rarely favours a foreigner’s perspective (in most cases), especially if you are at fault. Having a Korean speaking friend or coworker on speed dial is recommended, just in case, so that they can call the police or a lawyer and arrive on the scene to help you with any translation issues. Do not move the car or tamper with anything that may be considered evidence. While many foreigners feel that the law is never on their side, Korean police have a great reputation for being impartial and just toward expats. It is always best to cooperate with them and answer any questions they have truthfully. In case of a serious accident, make sure your insurance company is contacted immediately.
Chances are, if the accident is serious, you won’t have to call the police – they will be there within minutes (especially if it happens on a busy street). If you do need to call the police, dial the emergency number 119 and ask for an English speaking attendant. You can explain the situation to the attendant and they will send the appropriate people (ambulance, police, etc.) to the scene of the accident.