Road Safety in Korea

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:

Road Safety in Korea

(Source: The Guardian)

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.



Related Information and Sources: The Guardian | The Korea Herald | WHO Report | WHO Manual |

About This Author

Co-Author of Kojects. Interested in Sustainable Transportation, Urbanism and Korea.


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  • […] prove terribly dangerous in Korea, where drivers are known for their often risky behavior (read this article on road safety in Korea for a better […]

    Bicycle Lanes in Urban Korea | 5 years ago Reply

  • The linked article from the Korea Herald makes good points…


    “We have some problems in education. Not only learning knowledge, but we have to learn to respect our people. But in our education system that portion has not been emphasized,” said Lee.

    “Changing human behavior is a long-term project, but our presidential period is only five years so nobody is concerned with (creating an) education system to change people’s behavior.”

    The public’s poor adherence to the rules of the road also means that effective road features commonly used in other countries have little use in Korea, according to Lee.

    “The stop sign is not popular in Korea. But the stop sign or yield sign is very popular in Europe and the United States… If people obey the rules well, then stop signs or yield signs are very effective in terms of an operational point of view and safety point of view.”

    While driver behavior may be one of the main culprits in the country’s poor road safety record, experts also indentify deficiencies in planning and road maintenance, as well as other factors, as contributory causes.

    “We have many blind intersections, especially in residential areas,” said Kho Seung-young, a professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Seoul National University, adding that greater capital investment is needed to address road hazards.

    “There is no control of intersections in residential areas. So there are many accidents between cars and pedestrians compared to other countries.”


    Looking at the donut chart, car deaths in Korea do not seem to be of greatest concern, especially given that so few backseat riders wear seat belts (a problem that should be relatively easily rectifiable) and that overall deaths have been declining dramatically over the last decade. It is pedestrian deaths that are most troubling.

    Reducing the speed limit should help, but if most pedestrian deaths are due to dangerous driving (speeding included) in cramped urban neighborhoods outside the watch of enforcement, such an across-the-board move could prove to be a hindrance without benefit. It might be better to opt for some of the steps recommended above, including stop signs, blind intersection safety upgrades, and education programs teaching respect for fellow citizens (however difficult that may be to successfully implement).

    Given the similarities between Korea and Japan, geographically and otherwise, perhaps Korea should look to Japan rather than Germany for inspiration on how to tackle this specific problem. Japan has one of the lowest traffic-related death rates in the world, even though it features incredibly dense urban development.

    Finally, I would think that examining in detail a representative sample of accidents leading to traffic-related deaths in Korea would be necessary for the success of any serious effort to surmise the best possible methods for tackling the Korean road safety problem.

    Kasif 5 years ago Reply

  • Reblogged this on Discovering Korea.

    halfcrazygirl 5 years ago Reply

  • I took the drivers test in Germany and failed. They are very cautious with traffic.

    I think the root of a lot of this is cultural. I have noticed a few tjings over the years.

    People feel more anonymous when inside a car. In Korea we see a sudden change of social etiquette when people think others can’t see their faces.

    The other point was brought up at a Seoul town hall meeting and received a round of enthusiastic applause–which means it was properly ignored. Drivers think they are superior to pedestrians. It’s perverse. There is no concept that when one is controlling a dangerous vehicle, more vulnerable entities take priority.

    There is also a childishly selfish streak where drivers think they are more important than others, which justifies their bballi bballi carelessness and breaking traffic laws. Because, of course, rules are for other people.

    You know, just some basic enforcement of existing laws combined with elementary and up education with more stringent licensing requirements wpuld reduce all this dramatically.

    zenkimchi 5 years ago Reply

    • Yes, there is definitely a tendency for car drivers in Seoul to act superior, to the detriment of pedestrian safety.

      Especially self-important people driving fancy cars tend to treat pedestrian crosswalks as their own right of way.

      James 5 years ago Reply

  • When I first arrived in Korea, there were about 8 million vehicles on the road and approx. 12,000 vehicular deaths per year. Now, there are about 18 million vehicles on the road and approx. 6,000 vehicular deaths. Halving deaths while more than doubling traffic, that’s impressive if you ask me.

    I’ve always felt that pedestrians are complicit in the problem, but usually through no fault of their own. With vehicles often parked on sidewalks, or with scooters driving on sidewalks, pedestrians are forced to walk on the streets. Also, many older neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks. So more spaces for parking and/or better enforcement of parking regulations could help. As would building more and better (wider) sidewalks.

    Having said that, even in neighborhoods that DO have sidewalks (and ones that are unobstructed), people seemingly CHOOSE to walk on the street. That’s something that I just can’t understand. What’s worse, they are often wearing headphones, talking on phones, or other activities that make them oblivious to oncoming traffic. So I think that people need to be taught how to be good pedestrians and by that i mean paying attention to one’s surroundings and being on the lookout for vehicles. Also, police could enforce jaywalking regulations. If there is a perfectly good and unobstructed sidewalk, but you chose to walk on the road, why shouldn’t you get a ticket?

    Something that i think would help immensly is drivers’ education in schools. As important as the automotive industry is to Korea’s economy, I’ve always been amazed that it’s not part of the school curriculum (or if it is, I’ve never heard about it). Teach children in schools the basic rules of the road, how to be a polite driver, how to be a polite pedestrian, what the various traffic signs and lane markings mean, what they should do when emergency vehicles approach, etc. Who knows, if children knew the rules of the roads, they might even begins to start questioning their parents for the way that they drive.

    School-based drivers’ education could also apply to bicycles. I can remember growing up in Canada and having ‘bicycle rodeos’ at school, where we had to have our bikes inspected, display our riding skills, and complete a theoretical test of safety rules and regulations. The local police would come and talk to us about saftey and responsiblity. There were prizes. It was a fun, festival, and educational event.

    Finally, regarding the statistics quoted in this article, I wonder if scooter riders, as most are unlicensed, have been recorded as pedestrian deaths. Or if scooter riders are in the ‘other’ category. Also, does ‘victim’ in these stats mean ‘death’ or does it mean ‘incident’? For example, as a pedestrian, I’ve been struck by a car about four times in my life (twice in Canada and twice in Korea), but all incidents were (thankfully) harmless. So yes, I’ve been a ‘victim’ of a vehicle/pedestrian collision, but clearly not a fatal one.

    Overall, I’m for raising awareness rather than lowering speed limits.

    Walter Foreman (@walter_foreman) 5 years ago Reply

  • Thanks to all of you for the great comments! All of you have some really good points! I have nothing to add. :)

    Nikola 5 years ago Reply

  • I have to disagree with this wording:

    “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.”

    I distinctly remember from living in Seoul that the following were fairly common:

    A) Pedestrians running across the middle of wide busy streets. This could be stopped with high fences in the middle. Expensive but ultimately worth the lives saved.

    B) Cars playing chicken with pedestrians and cyclists. Maybe fully separated infrastructure is the right solution. Most alley type streets (the majority of streets in Seoul) have no sidewalks. This is not an easy solution, because these streets are already extremely narrow, but its wrong to dismiss an infrastructure solution out of hand.

    Look at the Netherlands; they have physically separated cycle lanes, and far far lower cycling deaths than anywhere in USA.

    Matthew 5 years ago Reply

  • […] Road safety is a big issue in Korea but the number of traffic deaths isn’t decreasing and most of the measures are very cost-intensive and they aim towards the wrong group, in my humble opinion. […]

    Sustainable Transportation in Korea | Kojects 4 years ago Reply

  • Interesting read. I was wondering how data is collected on accidents by the South Korean police. Do they take notes by hand and then type it in later at the police or do they use a standardized questionnaire-style sheet? Or are they using some short of tablet based program like I’ve seen in a few other countries?

    Kristian 4 years ago Reply

    • Thank you for reading! I have never been in an traffic accident in Korea and I don’t know how they write down the accident reports.

      Nikola 4 years ago Reply

  • The problem in Korea isn’t the speed limit: most roads are 60-70KPH, but the traffic, from 7AM until 9PM is so heavy that the actual average driving speed is closer to between 45-50KPH. The real problem in Korea is that drivers simply don’t care about anyone else on the road: it’s Confucianism taken to the extreme, where strangers aren’t actual people, and so no-one feels any responsibility to or for anyone else because they don’t ‘know’ that person. In Korea cars routinely stop (and park) in crosswalks–not a little over the line, but smack in the middle of the crosswalk. Drivers park on sidewalks, park in the turning lane, hazard on corners, straddle the centerline, straddle lanes; I’ve been cut off multiple times, in the turning lane on a busy street, by someone who then hazards and runs into a coffee shop! If there’s no red-light camera, then red lights are a suggestion, and many people simply blow through them–worse still is that the KNPs will blithley watch people break traffic laws.

    Ms. Moon 3 years ago Reply

  • […] time before now.  Even though Korea has about five times the road fatalies of western countries, current seatbelt use among back-seat passengers in cars in Korea is at roughly 6% despite it being illegal to not wear a rear seatbelt, and I can’t count the amount of selcas […]

    Who killed EunB? | KPOPALYPSE 3 years ago Reply

  • […] safe are Korean roads? Did traffic improve and what is the current trend? The last post about road safety in Korea is from 2013 and thus, I want to answer these questions again by presenting statistics about […]

    Traffic Accidents in Korea – Kojects 2 years ago Reply

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