Traffic Safety, Liveable Cities and a Lobby That Holds Us Back

This is a guest post by Max Neupert. He is an artist and academic who is interested in contemporary social and technological issues. He is a German citizen who has lived in Canada, Australia, Croatia, Bulgaria and is now based in Daegu, Korea. Max is member of ExtraEnergy, a non-profit consumer organisation for sustainable transportation with a focus on Light Electric Vehicles and electric assisted bicycles. Max is professor in the School of Fine Arts at Yeungnam University in Gyeongsan. You can reach him on Twitter @bauchhaus.
Views expressed are his own.


In this second part of the post I describe which issues I see in Korean road safety and I try to suggest possible measures that could help improve the situation. If you want to read the first part about Traffic safety and public (mis-)education, please click here. It will help you understand what I write at the end of this second part.

From my experience drivers in Korea expect pedestrians to give them way at cross-walks unenforced by traffic lights all-though the law technically gives pedestrians priority. In the law, a cross-walk with pedestrian equals a red light for cars.

Side streets commonly lack side walks entirely and the shoulders are used for parking. The Asian Development Bank recommends that cities abandon free public parking completely and charge for the use of communal street space for individual parking at least an amount so that it becomes a viable business model to provide private parking space. In most Korean cities this recommendation has not been implemented. Parking on both sides of small streets leaves the middle of the road to be shared by pedestrians and drivers alike. Car drivers usually aren’t keeping a safe distance from pedestrians and aren’t slowing down either. It’s a common sight that drivers are distracted by calling, texting, smoking or entering stuff in the navigation system. Drunk driving is a serious problem. Police is rarely seen enforcing any of the road rules.

Infographic comparing Korea and Germany

A graphic I made comparing the street design and legislation in the street in Weimar, Germany, where I used to live, with my street in Daegu where I live now.

On my short walk from my home to the nearest subway station I have the choice of walking along the main road or one a smaller side street.

The small road has parked cars everywhere leaving only a small lane in the middle that hurrying car drivers are sharing with pedestrians who need to seek shelter between parked cars whenever a car wants to get through. Cars from behind typically signal their approach with the horn so that pedestrians know they have to make way. In theory the speed limit there is 60 km/h. It is pretty scary when a car passes by with that speed leaving only a few centimetres of clearance.

The big road with four traffic lanes in each direction and a speed limit of 70 km/h is very loud and stressful, but at last features side-walks for pedestrians and something that could be a bicycle path on the side walk. Unfortunately the side walks are used as additional parking space and express way for lunch delivering motor-scooters. I complained to police about the cars completely blocking the bicycle path, but their response was: “There are restaurants, their customers need to park their cars somewhere”.

Parking on Sidewalks in Korea

Bicycle infrastructure can be turned completely useless when the design is bad and there is no enforcement of parking rules. Photo from

Consequently neither the small road nor the side-walk feel safe to use as a pedestrian. Ironically as soon as one enters the subway station safety comes first. There are school kids or elderly who stand there with signs exhorting you to stand firmly on the escalators using the handrails. So you merely escaped from multiple near-death experiences, being squeezed between traffic and parking cars, almost run-over at a cross-walk and cut off by a pizza scooter on the side-walk, you are being reminded that walking on an elevator is not considered safe for your life.

No wonder South Korea is a very dangerous place. It ranks third amongst the OECD countries when it comes to traffic fatalities, only superseded by Mexico and Chile. Compared to those countries, Korea is rich and the average car in Korea is newer and provides more safety for its passengers. Thus the death toll of accidents remains with the pedestrians where Korea holds the record. Yes, Korea has more pedestrian deaths per capita then any other OECD country.

Logically many would agree that there should be done something to increase road safety in Korea to a standard of developed nations.
KoROAD, the Korean Road Traffic Authority supervising driving licenses and road safety, has a dedicated national road safety plan in place. The goal is to reduce the number of fatalities by 2016 by 40% compared to the level of 2010. The intermediate target for 2012 has already been missed, and it is unlikely that the final target will be in reach if there are no serious improvements in road rules, their enforcement and much better road design. This goal of KoRoad is laudable and much needed. But in an
international comparison it is not even ambitious. Sweden is aiming to reduce their road fatalities to zero.

In the fatal Sewol ferry disaster 294 people, mostly school children, died. Since then there is a lot of talking about stricter safety and regulations in Korea. People are calling for the rigorous enforcement of those rules and regulations, fighting the notorious corner-cutting, nepotism and corruption. The governments response to the Sewol accident was to abandon school excursions entirely, as if it were the students who caused the overloaded and illegally modified ferry to sink. The ferry’s captain neglected his duties and was eventually sentenced to a long prison term.

No doubt this ferry disaster was dreadful and horrifying, but looking at the sheer numbers, the streets are a much more dangerous place — worldwide, but particularly in Korea.
6671 people died 2012 alone on Korean roads.
Every single driver needs to realize, that he is—just like a captain—bearing responsibility for life and death of those he shares the street with.

The World Health Organization published research showing that road accidents are exponentially more likely to be fatal when collisions happen with speeds over 30 km/h. When they are happening with over 60 km/h fatality nears certainty.

Traffic Safety

Screen grab of a graphic published by the WHO.

However the official speed limit in for inner-cities in Korea is 60 km/h, while primary roads even go up to 80 km/h. Lower speeds mean less fuel consumption and thus cleaner air. Lower speeds equal lower levels of noise pollution, which is long recognized as having a huge impact on stress level and health. Furthermore studies suggest that lower speeds increase the revenue of businesses along the street. We need liveable cities and neighbourhoods which are build for people, not cars.

There is a lot more that could be done to increase road safety in Korea. For example safer design of roads and crossings with separate ways for cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Measures to slow down the traffic, which are proven to be effective, like narrows of the road instead of speed bumps which only give incentives to people to buy bigger cars. Pedestrian crossings could be elevated and protected by curb extensions as seen in this graphic:

Unfortunately most cross walks are used as parking space.

Parking on Crosswalk

Inconvenient and dangerous by design. Foto:

Finally speed limits need to be lowered to 30 km/h for cities and below 20 km/h for residential streets which still don’t have side-walks. For comparison: residential streets without side-walks typically have a speed limit of 6 km/h in Germany, a ten fold decrease to the current law in Korea. Finally, the speed limits need actual enforcement. Speed limits in Korea are typically enforced through traffic cameras which are stationary, only installed on major through roads and announced by default by the navigation device which every car has. Using license plate recognition the speed in-between the cameras could be measured in addition to the momentary speed, so speeders that only slow down for the cameras could be caught.

A huge change is needed in legislation, street design and driver behaviour. The later starts with the kids. Teaching them to become safer car drivers would make a lot of sense. Even better: teach them that biking is fun. That you can take a bicycle to go places, not only to increase your fitness in Lycra clothing on protected bike paths along the river beds. More cyclists in a city increases the quality of life for everyone, not only for the cyclists themselves.
Studies looking at hospitalization of bicyclists before and after the introduction of public bicycle rental schemes in the US show, that the most effective way to make cycling safer is to increase the number of cyclists. This sounds like a chicken-and-egg problem, but it isn’t, because what counts for cyclists, is the perceived safety, and this can be achieved through good infrastructure for cyclists, making the bicycle the most convenient and safe way to get to places.

Mandatory helmet laws on the other hand just deter people from taking the bicycle without providing overall benefits when taking all health issues into account. Studies suggest that helmet-wearing cyclists engage in riskier driving because of their perceived safety. Motorists drive by closer to helmet wearing cyclists then non-helmet wearing cyclists.

Korea Bad Bicycle Path Design

Here you really need a bicycle helmet! The container-shop’s window shutter is at heads height over a bicycle path. Obvious and severe safety hazards like this makes you wonder who is responsible and approves it. Bicycle paths on the same level with pedestrians are dangerous and a bad design. Foto:

So why are are we teaching kids in Korea and abroad that biking is an unenjoyable, frustrating experience while simultaneously letting them become irresponsible motorists? Who is doing this?

I went to the bicycle track at Saejong Road to ask them why they are teaching kids that bicycle riding is a ridiculous activity while the car drivers right next to it don’t learn how to drive safely. The guy I had approached seemed shocked at my question and just said: “you are right” while referring me to the manager. I asked her for her business card.

It read: Safe Kids Korea™, a member of Safe Kids worldwide™.
Let’s see who is behind this trademark. The US-based mother organization was founded with support from pharmaceutical and consumer good giant Johnson & Johnson. Amongst its sponsors are the General Motors Foundation, Chrysler, the Auto Alliance (a car manufacturers lobby group including BMW Group, Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche Cars North America, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Cars of North America), the FIA (an international umbrella organization for national road safety, motorists and motor sport associations) and others.
Its Korean chapter is funded by General Motors Korea, Samsung (car-) insurances, the petroleum, refinery and gas station company S-Oil/Total as well as Ssangyong Motor Co.

In short: “Safe Kids” is an effort of the industry to make kids safer. Thinking about it, there are a lot of things the car industry could do to make kids safer. How about safer, lighter, more efficient, smaller cars equipped with technology that makes it impossible to run over a pedestrian? The technology exists. How about making it impossible to speed? Many countries require trucks to be built so that it is impossible to exceed the speed limit for this type of vehicle (plus a 10 km/h leeway). Cars could be built the same way, their GPS knows what the current speed limits are. What about blocking the car if there are passengers not wearing their seatbelts? In Korea, seat belt usage on the rear seats is as low as 9%. For comparison: It is at 97% in Germany (data from a OECD/ International Transport Forum study).

What about making cars stop the engine when they aren’t actually moving? Combustion and particle emission which come to great parts from gasoline, diesel and tire abrasion lead to 7 million premature deaths annually. The car industry could do their part to reduce this. Koreans seem to love leaving their car running idle. It is a widespread urban myth that this is good for the engine. Maybe something that was true with Ford’s Model T, but certainly not for the modern cars on Korean roads today. Seoul’s mayor sees the problem and passed a law in 2014 that makes it illegal to let the motor running for longer than 3 minutes (5 for diesel engines, a strange concession to the rumour that this is good for the motor). What about producing and selling non-emission vehicles? A few models exist, but they merely serve as fig leaves for a total lack of environmental concerns in the car industry.

Indeed the implementation of these measures would mean that those cars would have a competitive disadvantage compared to cars that are not imposing those restrictions. “Safe Kids” stays away from those measures that could endanger revenue to their sponsors. Instead it focuses on crass victim blaming. It’s the pedestrians and kids who have to change their behaviour, who need to be trained and schooled how not to be run over by a car. It follows the same twisted logic as rapists declaring that the victim has “asked for it” by dressing up too arousing.

“Safe Kids” is a typical white-washing effort of the industry, trying to distract lawmakers from the real possibilities for change. A substantial change for more liveable and safer cities that is inevitably coming to Korea. In fact, we can see this change already since a while. Look at the immensely popular river bicycle paths, more and more thriving pedestrian friendly areas, the uncovering and re-naturalization of the Cheonggyecheon river in Seoul, all those projects show that it is possible to gain more quality of life in the cities. It is happening, but we should aspire to accelerate this change. Lobby organizations of the industry will try to thwart everything what threatens their business model. A business model that doesn’t care, neither about the environment nor about safe kids, especially not about those who aren’t sitting inside a car, waiting to be future customers.

About This Author

Kojects brings you the latest news about transport and urban projects in South Korea.


You can post comments in this post.

  • I totally agree with the article but there are some other root causes that need to be addressed. For instance, when a business establishment is being built; restaurant, shipping company, market, etc., there needs to be rules that are enforced which would require adequate parking and space needed to conduct business. Not building a business and using roadways as parking and loading zones. That beautiful stretch of road on 72 near paldang bridge in Daegu, which has 3 lanes in each direct but the outside lanes are used for parking and transferring cargo, is a perfect example of what happens when’s business are not required to accommodate all aspects of their business off the public roadways. Quite often workers jump off of trucks on the traffic side of the vehicle creating additional hazards. In regards to the laws mentioned, I have recently noticed police setting up points and waving vehicles over, presumably for, cell phone use, seatbelt non-use, speeding, running red lights, or making illegal U-turns but these points, in my opinion are not set up frequently enough and are way to predictable. The rest of the time laws are not followed by most drivers in Korea, to include foreigners who quickly pick up the bad driving habits, nor does there appear to be anyone to enforce the laws. The police are quick to point out the laws when accidents occur so I am quite certain they are aware of the laws. They for some reason choose not to enforce laws that would prevent a majority of accidents. I could go on but I am on my iPad and I am sure there are enough typing and spelling errors that make me look like a high school dropout.

    Tom Robertson 3 years ago Reply

    • I think you mean 팔달교? I’ve been there a few times with the bicycle to get my drivers license exchanged. For the parking I see two kinds of designs: Small side walk and no parking space at all, so people start to use a traffic lane to park, or a wider side walk with some parking space on the elevated side walk level in front of the buildings. From a pedestrians perspective I prefer the first one, because the later inevitably leads to the congestion of the whole pedestrian space by cars. I believe drivers should not be encouraged to leave their designated area.

      Max (@bauchhaus) 3 years ago Reply

      • You are correct on the name of the bridge.

        Tom Robertson 3 years ago Reply

  • Another excellent post.

    Not only did you point out so many of the problems that exist in the area of pedestrian safety, but also solutions. I wish more people would do that.

    Also, it was a great bit of investigative work to uncover the corporate sources behind the Orwellianly named “Safe Kids” “program.” Amazing work.

    I also agree with the comments of Tom Robertson, especially about businesses not being required to do their part in working with the government on parking solutions.

    Your post and Tom Robertson’s comments are so comprehensive that they’ve covered almost all the bases.

    I have just one thing to add. One of the reasons for the high rate of pedestrian deaths in Korea is that the pedestrians themselves are clueless! Nobody knows how to walk down the street. People often don’t look before crossing the street or stepping out into traffic. They don’t walk in a straight line, instead just swerving about everywhere. They step out into traffic while looking at their cell phones, etc.

    Of course–and this is important–we have to lay the majority of the blame for pedestrian accidents on the things you talked about in this post (lack of safe sidewalks, high speed limits, poorly designed crosswalks, etc.), but let’s not forget the incompetent pedestrians either.

    Thanks again for the great post.

    James 3 years ago Reply

    • James, thank you for your kind words. The Idea that the road is something for cars is a very recent one. I believe that we need to decide if we want to live in a city build for cars or ones build for people. Ideally we build cities for people and they should be able to wonder around as they like. Accidents happen when there is bad design allowing for them to happen. If a road is built like a motorway there is no access for pedestrians. Then you have a “safe environment” for cars. If you want pedestrians, then make sure that cars don’t pose a risk to them. In Korea you can often see physical barriers like handrails that separate the side walk from the street. They are very effective, as they serve two functions: they prevent cars from going on the side walk for parking and they prevent pedestrians from going on the street. Like here:
      This is an example how you can solve the issue with good design.
      However those barriers only make sense for high traffic roads. If there is no such barrier, the only way is to reduce the vehicle speed so that the risk of death in case of a collision is reduced. I am hesitant to say that the pedestrians should be more careful, simply because it is not a fair game between a car and a person. Pedestrians pay with their life, drivers have an air bag and a lot of metal.

      I have two suggested readings for you:

      Korean Parking (@Koreanparking) 3 years ago Reply

  • I really enjoyed and agree with the points in this post but I wonder:

    “residential streets without side-walks typically have a speed limit of 6 km/h in Germany…”

    How often is this limit simply taken as a suggestion? How often is it ignored? We Canadians are great at stopping at stop lights but everybody drives faster than the posted limit.
    A key point of your article seems to be that the laws exist but the adherence to and enforcement of these laws is the problem so I would like to know about Germany in that regard to better compare the two countries.

    surprisesaplenty 3 years ago Reply

    • Hi!

      From my experience the majority of people drives faster than 6 km/h through such areas but still it isn’t faster than 20 km/h. Driving faster than the allowed speed by law is often a problem of street design and law enforcement. These are some of the points that Max presented greatly. The residential streets in Germany have cobblestone as a surface and so a higher speed results in big noise.
      In Korea you have an urban speed limit of 60 km/h but it results in a driving speed of up to 80 km/h in some areas. Especially main streets with wide lanes invite people to speed.

      Nikola 3 years ago Reply

  • To be accurate, there is hardly any residential street in Germany that lacks side walks. What exists is either a pedestrian only area (the inner city with shopping mostly) or a zone where traffic is limited to immediate residents only. It might seem surprising, but there is no speed limit for those areas which is expressed in a number, the law instead says it is not allowed to drive faster then “walking speed” which I have translated to 6 km/h in the article for the sake of simplification.

    Max (@bauchhaus) 3 years ago Reply

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