[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Resolution that could save your lifeRunning some last-minute errands on Christmas morning, I stood on a snowy street corner in northeastern Seoul waiting to cross over to a convenience store. Luckily, the wet snow made the sidewalks very slippery that day, for it slowed me down just enough to avoid getting hit by a van that ran a red light as I and several other pedestrians stepped off the curb.
Like just about everyone else who lives in Seoul, I normally would not give it a second thought, because I am inured to that kind of driver behavior. Vehicles running red lights is very common in Korea. But that day it made me angry because the incident reminded me of another Christmas some years back when things did not turn out quite so well, and I was disappointed to see that for all our economic and technological progress, we are still somewhat backward when it comes to traffic safety.
On that other occasion I was waiting with about a dozen people for the traffic light to change. Immediately to my right three middle-school girls were chatting merrily about the coming holidays and what they were going to do while school was out for winter vacation. After a while, our light turned green.
We were all sure that the cars had stopped, and we stepped into the crosswalk. One of the three girls was slightly ahead of the group and twisted around to her left to say something to her friends. She was carrying a big, white vinyl bag hanging by a strap from her right shoulder.
Just then a small delivery truck came barreling down the curbside lane. The truck hit the girl's arm and shoulder. Her white bag was torn away, flying into the air and landing about four meters down the street. The girl herself was thrown backwards, knocking over one of her friends. Her friend got up immediately, but the girl who was hit lay there stunned, making no sound or movement at all for what seemed like minutes but could not have been more than a few seconds. None of us who had been waiting for the light crossed the street; we just stood frozen, mouths agape, not sure what to do.
The injured girl began to cry out in agony as she recovered from the initial stunning blow and real pain set in. I was amazed at how quickly her hand had turned completely black and blue. She did not seem able to move her right arm or hand, and the rest of her body began to writhe.
Meanwhile, the truck that hit her stopped about 30 meters down the street. A woman on the sidewalk near where the truck had come to a halt appeared to be taking down the number from the truck's license plate. The driver looked out the back window for several seconds before he got out and came back to where the girl was lying in the street.
A young couple pulled up in a white sedan, and the man got out to see if he could help. The truck driver carried the injured girl to the white sedan and put her in the back seat. The girl's two friends got in the truck, and they all drove off to a nearby hospital.
I could not help wondering how bad the girl's injuries were and what would happen to the driver. At best, the girl's winter vacation would be spoiled; at worst, she might lose some or all functions of her right arm and hand for life. As for the driver, he would have at the very least been held liable for the girl's injuries and would have had to pay for whatever treatments were required.
No policeman came to the scene, but if the "accident" was reported to the police, as is required by Korean law, he was almost certainly fined heavily and his license was probably revoked for at least a year.
On the other hand, if a "deal" was made with the girl's parents and the police were left out of it, he was never taken off the road.
Notice that I put the word "accident" in quotes. That is because it was not really an accident. That driver knew exactly what he was doing when he decided to floor the accelerator to try to make it around the corner against the light before any pedestrians stepped into his path. Maybe he learned an important lesson, albeit at the expense of a little girl's well-being.
Why is this scene replayed over and over again in Korea? It would be nice if all drivers made a New Year's resolution to drive carefully and obey the traffic laws. Well, we know that is not going to happen anytime soon, so we pedestrians will just have to make our own defensive resolution: Never trust a green traffic light in Korea.
Look both ways and stay healthy in 2003.
* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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