[In depth interview] Fighting fatalities on Korea’s highways

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[In depth interview] Fighting fatalities on Korea’s highways

Of the 28 governmental projects President Lee Myung-bak announced in his Aug. 15 celebratory speech last year, one called for Korea to cut in half the number of people killed in car accidents in five years, because this country has car accident fatality rates twice those of other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members.

According to government data, 3.1 Koreans died in car accidents per 10,000 vehicles on average as of 2007, but the Lee administration wants to lower the figure to 1.3 per 10,000 vehicles by 2012, which seems like a challenging task. It took 20 years for developed countries such as Britain and Japan to cut accident rates in half, but Korea Transportation Safety Authority CEO Chung Sang-ho says he can achieve the goal in five because the TSA is approaching the issue from a scientific point of view. Chung, who was appointed head of the TSA in July last year, talked about his strategies and ultimate goals for next year.

Q. Do you really think you can decrease the number of people killed in car accidents in five years?

A. In 2007, 6,146 people lost their lives due to car accidents. The government’s goal is to decrease the number to around 2,900 in 2012. I know it’s a tough goal because it takes about two decades for developed countries to achieve such a dramatic change, but I think we can do it because Koreans are ready to take car accidents seriously.

What is your strategy to accomplish your goal?

Some might think only unlucky people have car accidents, but this is so untrue. Accidents are very predictable, because we have statistics and data regarding them. With access to detailed figures regarding car accidents, we can reduce their number. I call it a scientific approach. What the TSA has to do is making the best use of the statistics. When I took office last summer, I noticed that no one really knew the importance of statistics.

You know what? Statistics for 2007 car accidents came out four months late. With such a slow reaction, who can predict and prevent car accidents the following year?

Tell us your plan to cut the number of car accidents in coming years.

This is a complicated issue, which means we need multilateral efforts by police, civic groups and other related governmental organizations. For example, individual drivers should be more careful when they drive, and roads and highways should be designed to be driver-friendly.

But the foremost task is decreasing car accident rates among professional drivers who drive trucks and other large vehicles for a living. The professional drivers have accident rates five times higher than individual drivers in Korea. I believe the “1,000-2020 campaign” will play an important role in lowering car accidents by professional drivers. By selecting 1,000 transportation companies that experienced the most car accidents last year along with 1,000 frequent car accident spots, employees of the TSA are visiting transportation companies and giving safety tips to professional drivers on a regular basis until 2020.

The 1,000 transportation companies are then placed in three categories - red, yellow and blue - based on the number of car accidents they report every year. As a result of the campaign, which was kicked off in January, car accidents at these 1,000 companies went down by 50 percent from 10 months ago.

Do you plan to amend or modify your 1,000-2020 idea next year?

We’re considering adding 500 more transportation companies to the list. In addition, we’ll add 1,000 more spots that suffer frequent pedestrian accidents.

What if those measures aren’t enough to reach your target?

I have more. In recent years, the number of rental car accidents have been on the rise, and we also expect to see more accidents from construction trucks next year as the Lee government has initiated the four rivers project, meaning more construction trucks and other machinery will be running on highways. So we’ll try to minimize accidents from rental cars and construction trucks next year.

Do you plan to promote a national campaign to raise awareness about safe driving?

As we all know, most of the previous campaigns were one-time only, but I think we’re in need of continuous and sustainable campaigns. If you closely look at statistics regarding car accidents, you will see what must be done first.

I noticed the shoulders of highways are venues where car accidents frequently occur. When one pulls the car over to the shoulder of the highway, four in 10 accidents that take place there end with a fatality. For instance, nine died on highways located across North Gyeongsang in April alone, meaning two died each week. Car accidents are far more fatal than the new flu. So I introduced a campaign called Road Supporters. The Road Supporters consist of employees of the TSA.

What do the Road Supporters do?

We adopted a face-to-face strategy. If we find a car parked on the shoulder of the highway, the Road Supporters find the drivers and tell them not to pull over their cars over to the shoulder.

For those who say they had no option but to park their cars there because they felt drowsy, the Road Supporters hand out hot peppers so that they will be able to wake up. We also built rest areas near highways in order to give drivers another option other than parking their cars on the shoulder.

The Road Supporters really worked well, so I’m thinking about beefing up the campaign next year. Another campaign we’ll be pushing forward next year is encouraging people to fasten their seatbelts even if they’re sitting in the rear. About 85 percent of Koreans fasten their seatbelts when they sit in front, but only 3.8 percent buckle up when they sit in the back.

Is there any other way to lower car accident rates other than campaigns?

Design the road or highway to be driver-friendly.

The TSA reported a deficit last year, but there’s no money to be made in cutting car accidents. What are your plans to bring in revenue?

Starting next June, anyone can register their vehicles on the Internet without visiting their district offices. And temporary license plates will be no longer used next year as well. By capitalizing on these changing procedures, we’re thinking about doing something to create additional revenue.

Are any changes coming for the vehicle inspection service, the TSA’s main revenue source?

The market share of the TSA in the vehicle repair market has been falling since 1997, when individual garages won approval from the government to conduct inspections along with us. So we want to develop a new market where we could lead, such as vehicle inspection services for hybrids. TSA’s market share is 25 percent, but we hope to increase it to 35 percent next year.

What are your plans for the new year?

We’ll export our car inspection services to Southeast Asian nations next year.

By Han Jeong-yeon [so@joongang.co.kr]

Chung Sang-ho, Korea Transportation Safety Authority CEO
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