The Koreas

South Korea’s Traffic Violence Epidemic

Recent Features

The Koreas | Society | East Asia

South Korea’s Traffic Violence Epidemic

Korean pedestrians die at a rate three times higher than the OECD average.

South Korea’s Traffic Violence Epidemic
Credit: Depositphotos

Earlier this year, in the South Korean city of Incheon, a young mother and her 4-year-old daughter were crossing a pedestrian crossing on their way to kindergarten. The mother was struck by a car, dragged five meters, and later died of her injuries. A week before that, a sixth-grader on a crosswalk outside an apartment complex in Seoul was run down and killed by an SUV. These are just two of the 50,000 pedestrians that drivers in South Korea kill or injure each year.

These deaths are a choice — a choice governments make every day when they weigh the safety of their citizens against economic costs. We have seen a different choice play out amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. During COVID-19, the South Korean government chose to protect its citizens. But on the nation’s roads, the government has failed to deal with an epidemic of traffic violence.

Last week, half a world away in Paris, a different choice was made. Mayor Anne Hidalgo chose to prioritize the safety of her citizens by introducing a near-blanket 30 km/h (around 18.6 mph) speed limit throughout the city. In a decision supported by 59 percent of Parisians, Hidalgo upheld her pledge to make “a Paris that breathes, a Paris that is more agreeable to live in, a more caring city that leaves no one by the wayside.”

Paris is not alone. Close to 200 towns in France have introduced similar speed limits, alongside many towns in neighboring Spain and the Netherlands. London introduced a 32 km/h speed limit in its center in 2020. The goal is fewer deaths. When struck by a car going 30 km/h, one in 10 pedestrians will die. At 50 km/h, half of pedestrians will die. At 60 km/h, 90 percent of pedestrians struck will die.

This year South Korea finally reduced its urban speed limits from 60 to 50 km/h. The move has had an immediate effect, with police reporting a 16.7 percent reduction in pedestrian deaths and no increase in commute times. But this will not be enough to bring South Korea in line with other developed nations. South Korean pedestrians die at a rate three times higher than the OECD average.

A primary reason for this is a lack of enforcement. In South Korea, even the most basic traffic laws, such as stopping at pedestrian crossings, are not enforced. It has been observed that the only place in Seoul where cars routinely stopped for pedestrians was in the now-closed U.S. army base in the city center. Korean taxi drivers would enter the base and follow every rule, then exit and go back to flouting the law. The difference: visible policing.

Media reporting on traffic deaths in South Korea, as in many countries, remains poor. Next month will mark three years since 18-year-old Kim Seon-woong was killed by a driver while helping an elderly lady pull a cart across a crosswalk. The incident is still referred to in Korean media as an unexpected accident. The driver was driving a one-ton metal box at over 50 km/h on a narrow street late at night. The idea that the resulting death was unforeseeable, or an unpreventable accident, is absurd. 

This absurdity is beginning to be challenged.

When U.S. presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren stated that “Traffic violence kills thousands and injures even more Americans every year,” she was reframing the issue of traffic deaths. She was adopting the language of modern safety advocates and urbanists, who view road accidents as acts of violence, and car-centric cities as hostile spaces.

In South Korea, car hostility extends beyond roads to sidewalks. Illegal parking is rife in South Korea, with entire Facebook groups devoted to the most egregious examples. Parking over crosswalks, in front of fire hydrants, and directly on sidewalks remains rampant. Such parking endangers children crossing the street, results in deadly fires that cannot be put out immediately, and denies those pushing strollers or using wheelchairs a right to use the sidewalk.

This discrimination is made worse by local governments that force cyclists and e-scooters to use pedestrian paths. Rather than build protected bike lanes on roads, local authorities paint “bike lanes” onto already narrow pedestrian paths. For the young, the elderly, or the disabled this is a threat. For the women that predominantly care for these groups, it is a source of constant anxiety.

As with many issues facing modern-day South Korea, traffic violence arises from decisions made by middle-aged able-bodied men, in the interests of middle-aged able-bodied men. The costs, however, are often borne by other people. Koreans over 65 make up 16 percent of the population, but 57 percent of pedestrian deaths. And it is the young and the elderly who suffer the most from the indirect effects of vehicle use: air pollution.

Hidalgo’s decision to lower speed limits in Paris was not just about traffic violence. It was also about air pollution. Air pollution kills an estimated 14,000 French people a year. The death toll in South Korea is twice that. In the capital Seoul, vehicles remain the largest source of local air pollution. The consequences of this pollution include reduced cognitive ability in the elderly, respiratory illness in the young, and congenital abnormalities in the unborn. 

The South Korean government has declared electric and hydrogen vehicles a solution, with President Moon Jae-in promoting hydrogen cars as “running air purifiers.” But recent government research from the U.K. has shown that over half of vehicle air pollution comes from brake, tire, and road wear. Electric and hydrogen vehicles will not solve this. In fact, the greater weight of these vehicles could make this worse.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit South Korea, the government overhauled every aspect of public life to protect the nation’s most vulnerable. When it comes to traffic violence, far less dramatic changes are required: enforce the laws already in place, reduce speeds where possible, and encourage the use of alternative transportation that does not threaten the lives of others. The choice is there. It just needs to be made.