From the passenger seat of a Korean car, it is impossible to tell which side of the road you're supposed to be on. Both sides are used freely; lanes exist only to offer drivers the luxury of choice. Koreans like options. Especially on blind bends and hills. And as you cower in the passenger seat beneath your primly fastened seatbelt, it occurs to you how fleeting life is. My co-teachers will not use turn signals or fully stop when indicated. Here in Korea, stop signs with white boarders may actually be optional. Red traffic lights certainly are, at least if you’re making a left turn through oncoming traffic. My main co-teacher, a wife and mother, does this every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and probably on the other days as well. There are now little fingernail grooves in the plastic of her front passenger door. Those are my contribution to our morning commute.
Korean roads, street signs, and traffic indications are unsettlingly like those in the US. Traffic lights flick from green to yellow to red. Pedestrian crossing lights use the same little walking man pictures. Even the highway signs are identical to those in downtown Milwaukee (well, apart from being written in Korean): white writing, green background, suspended over the appropriate lanes. It’s like being on a gameboard for Monopoly on which everyone has decided to play foosball.
The only time my co-teacher has apologized for her driving is when she made an illegal U-turn. This is difficult to do in Korea, because there are actually special U-turn lanes—where we would have left turning lanes—from which it is perfectly legal to do a 180 into opposing traffic. Somehow, my co-teacher contrived to do a U-turn in the one place in Chungju it isn’t technically allowed. There weren’t any cop cars around, and no one honked or seemed agitated, but she was deeply embarrassed and contrite. She apologized all through zipping into the right hand bike lane, scattering a small crowd of pedestrians, and then cutting ahead of the line of waiting cars at a stop light. Then she ran the light.
Another co-teacher, after a free-slalom through the mountains (a.k.a. driving home from school), entreated me in a heartfelt manner to be careful when out walking. “I am very worried for you. In Chungju there are many car accidents.”
I appreciated the concern, but it wasn’t really necessary. I already know that if I don’t die in a Korean car, it’s because I died in a Korean crosswalk. You want to know how the people here stay so skinny? Running from cars.
Crossing the street in Chungju is a sport that requires both raw guts and precision calculation.* I assume there is some complex algorithm that Koreans use to compute the likeliness of survival. I'm unable to process sophisticated math (I was unable to even spell algorithm unaided), so I’ve pared the process down to three general questions:
Is there a car coming from the left?
Is there a car coming from the right?
Can you book it faster than the oncoming car?
Ok, GO, GIRL. GO!
But this is only an issue if you try to cross the street. Just walking in the street follows a different set of wholly unknowable rules, since the side streets here have no sidewalks, and everyone just goes everywhere in a pedestrian/automotive free for all. Korean cyclists don’t wear helmets, but pedestrians run around the place in full hockey gear.
Well, they should.
* For the sake of accuracy, I must admit that all the main roads are equipped with pedestrian crossing signs. Everyone (including deranged motorists) piously observes these. Crossing streets with pedestrian lights is a gentele and civilized affair. My neighborhood doesn’t have them. We just have carnage