Korea is constantly developing its infrastructure and realizing new rail or road projects. In my opinion, the quality of road infrastructure and public transport here is on a similar level with Germany, France and United Kingdom. However, if you focus on road safety in Korea and take a look at the number of accidents or deaths caused by traffic, South Korea is far behind the majority of OECD countries. This post tries to look at the situation, reasons and possible solutions.
For example take a look at this comparison of road safety between UK and South Korea:
The vehicle ownership in UK is higher than in South Korea but the number of deaths is really low compared to South Korea. Most of the victims are car users in UK, while in South Korea the most vulnerable group are the pedestrians. I would’ve liked to compare South Korea to another country with a similar vehicle ownership but I couldn’t find any country.
The most vulnerable group in Korea are pedestrians. 38 % of the deaths by road accidents are pedestrians, followed by car users (drivers and passengers) (25 %), motorbikes (20 %), trucks (9 %) and 5 % cyclists (followed by 3 % others). If you put it in relation to the modal share (bicycles are around 2 %), the share of deaths for cyclists is quite high. The world average for road traffic deaths of pedestrians is at 22 % and Korea’s high share corresponds to the share of the whole African continent. However private car ownership is much lower in Africa.
What could be the reason?
There are minor reasons like that only 6 % of the people on the rear seats use the safety belts even though by law it is mandatory to use them (front and rear seats!). Another reason can be found in an article of The Korea Herald: wrong behavior of traffic participants. The infrastructure in South Korea is relatively good, says a Korean transport engineering professor. Possible reasons could be inappropriate driving speed, illegal parking or other illegal acts (like illegal U-Turns) by car drivers or pedestrians. So instead of infrastructure are the traffic users to blame? It’s very difficult to determine the exact reasons. Wide streets might lead to high driving speed and aggressive behavior. Or the short green light for pedestrians makes people run across the street without paying attention to cars. Does the fast urbanization of South Korea come with a slow adaption of its (new) urbanites?
A Couple of Possible Solutions
How can we improve road safety in Korea? More constructions, more physical separations aren’t the right solution to safe the live of pedestrians and cyclists. The solution isn’t easy and a comprehensive approach is necessary.
The professor of SNU says that no one is concerned with establishing a better traffic education system but I believe that that there are a lot of ambitious programs. The Korea Transport Institute held multiple seminars related to road safety and traffic education. They intensified their research in this area. Korea sees Germany as a role model of traffic education. Since decades Germany does succesfully a lot of measures. These are traffic education for elementary school children, intensive safety lessons for driving licence applicants and law-enforcement. Automobile clubs, local police and municipal governments try to inform citizens of all ages about the correct behavior on the roads. Traffic education is a long-term project. It takes time to change behavior.
Until then the first step could be to reduce the allowed speed in urban areas. Since a few months Germany discusses reducing the allowed speed from 50 km/h to 30 km/h in urban areas (actually, a lot of area have already 30 km/h-limit). If you look at his map, you can see that the urban speed in South Korea is too high:
Currently, the allowed speed on roads in Korean cities is 60 km/h. At first, a reduction to 50 km/h would be great. This is just an idea and easier said than done. However, it may reduce the number of traffic accidents and later other measures could follow. In the link section at the bottom of this post, you can also find a manual about pedestrian safety, published by WHO. The introduced measures of this blog post are a suggestion for road safety in Korea to keep up with the safety standards of the other OECD nations. It would be great, if Korea would aim beyond that and try to improve road safety to an above-(OECD)-average level.