So light up your antenna and honk if you make U-turnsWelcome to Seoul! We hope your extended stay here in the Land of the Morning Calm will be a pleasant one, and that you enjoy the new set of wheels your company has provided for you during your stay. Here are a few tips to help you on the road, because you will find that Korea’s nickname is true: the only time Seoul’s streets are calm is at 4 a.m.
First, practice making U-turns. In no other major city of the world is a U-turn so important a part of driving technique. Especially when you’re first finding your way around the city, be careful of accepting at face value directions that include the phrase, “Turn left at...” That’s shorthand for “Go past the intersection, make a U-turn anywhere from 500 meters to 50 kilometers past the intersection and then make a right turn.” There are also P-turns, which often involve driving through a couple of alleys that would be almost too narrow for your car even if there weren’t a Bongo parked diagonally to block your passage.
A good test of your navigating skills will be to spend an hour driving through City Hall Plaza. Whatever you may think of the experience, you must tip your hat to the engineers who crafted this traffic scheme. You can get from any street or alley entering the plaza to any road exiting it ― if you know how. Even veteran taxi drivers occasionally pause to visualize the series of figure-8’s that are sometimes necessary, but it works.
Generally conservative Koreans are beginning to pick up a bad habit from auto parts manufacturers that serve more flamboyant societies. Increasingly, cars are decked out with lights that make them look like mobile Christmas trees. White taillights? Can do. White taillights that turn electric purple when you step on the brakes? Sure. Flashing strobe lights under the chassis? Electric pink lighted radio antennas? Lights that chase around your license plate? No problem. You can even have dazzling yellow or bluish xenon headlights installed on your chariot. The lights will be mis-aimed as well so they illuminate oncoming drivers’ faces as they weave and cover their eyes with their hand. That lets the driver know he made a good investment in the new lights.
Add all these dazzling accouterments to the flashing lights that police cars use even when they’re not chasing bad guys, and throw in the flashing police lights mounted on the side of the road to make drivers think a prowl car is parked there; now you have a display worthy of the world’s leading discos. Little wonder fender-benders abound at night. You will also have to unlearn some bad habits, like signaling a lane change. That is dangerous in Korea, because it stirs the competitive juices of the driver to your left or right rear. If you look in your mirror, see a car 10 meters behind you in the lane you want to move into, and then signal the lane change, you are going to end up with a crumpled side door. That turn signal tells the driver behind you that this is his last chance to get in front of you before you take up his God-given space on the road. If you want to change lanes, just yank the wheel as hard and as suddenly as you can. On a personal note, I learned real-world driving in the Philippines, where traffic signals are suggestions (when they work). Driving there is a game of jockeying for position and getting the proper angle so you can cut someone off with no chance of his escaping the trap. But roads in the Philippines, rural and urban, are in such poor shape that the normal speed is about the same as bumper cars at a carnival. The whole exercise is about having fun, and you cheerfully salute the guy who just made a particularly elegant move to get a car length ahead of you.
Not in Korea. Here, the game is deadly serious. Korean drivers never give way. Never in a million years. Perhaps it comes from Korea’s history of being on the losing end of lost causes, but where a Filipino will look at the angles, see that he lost this round and yield, Korean players will fight it out to the bitter end, when there’s only a single thickness of paint separating your car from his. Now I know what you’re going to ask next: Isn’t it just easier to yield? Perhaps, but you’ll die of natural causes before somebody lets you proceed. And unlike the Philippines, roads here are good. It’s not bumper cars; it’s extreme sport. So buckle up, and test yourself against the masters of the game. And don’t forget: Drive offensively.
by John Hoog