Driving in Korea

It wasn’t until moving to Korea that I owned a car as an expat. Everywhere else I’ve lived has been a major city with easy access to public transportation, such as subways or metros, taxis, motorcycle taxis, and buses. I’ve also always used a bicycle as a major form of transport or walked where I needed to go. When I moved to Jeju island in 2020, it was obvious that I’d need a car to get around, as taxis are quite limited, buses run infrequently, and I live in a pretty rural area, so bikes and walking aren’t the ideal form of transport for most places I need to go.

For the most part, I like driving here, and I appreciate the freedom it affords me. No waiting around for a taxi, spending hours changing trains and walking long distances to get where I want to go, or having to plan my outings so meticulously. But there are some definite differences in driving here as compared to the US- some I’ve gotten used to and some that continue to frustrate me.

If you like to drive fast, you’ll be so irritated here! The maximum speed limit anywhere on Jeju is 80 km/hr, which is only about 50 mph. Can you imagine only being able to drive 50 mph on the highway?!? You might be thinking…yeah, but I’d just risk it and speed. Well, while there are no police cars virtually anywhere, nor have I ever once seen anyone pulled over for any reason, there are speed limit cameras EVERYWHERE. I’m serious…my car talks to me all the time to warn me about upcoming speed limit cameras and beeps incessantly while turning my music all the way down if I am over the limit (which is in itself a very annoying feature that cannot be turned off!). The only good thing is that you are warned about the cameras. The most annoying thing about the speed limits on the highways is that instead of a few speed cameras along the way, which would mean you could at least go faster when you are not near a camera, there’s this thing called a “boxed camera zone” in which you must maintain an average speed of 80 km/hr over a long stretch of road. Again, my car comes in handy by telling me the average speed I’m going, but if I’m even 1 km over the limit, the loud beeping starts and my tunes cut out, forcing me to slow down so that I can hear my music. There are cameras at the beginning and end of the zone which take your picture. If you are too fast (it’s based on time stamps from when you enter and exit), you get a speeding ticket in the mail. I frequently see people who’ve sped past me earlier pulled over on the shoulder just before the exit to wait so they don’t get a ticket. It’s bizarre! One last thing about speed limits…all school zones have a 30 km/hr limit (18 mph). It doesn’t matter what time of day or night, what day of the week it is, or if it’s a school holiday, you have to adhere to the speed limit or you’ll get a ticket.

Another tactic to reduce people’s speed is to install speed bumps on nearly all roads, even major thoroughfares. Whereas in the States, you only encounter speed bumps in parking lots, near school zones, at airports, and in some residential areas, here in Jeju, speed bumps are a way of life, popping up every few hundred meters on most roads. This means that I get to hear my car tell me “speed bump ahead” all the bloody time.

Everywhere you go people complain about other drivers and say they have the worst drivers, and while I’m not going to make that claim, I can say that Korean drivers are very selfish. They will cut you off, block the road and refuse to move, pull right out in front of you, even when you have the right of way, and take ages to park while you are stuck waiting on them (nearly all Koreans back into all parking spaces, which always takes more time). When you honk at them to signal your frustration, which I do (yet most others don’t, which I find really odd), you get what I call the ‘Korean car apology.’ They turn on their hazard lights in a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge they were in the wrong. Don’t tell me your sorry by flashing your lights, just don’t drive like an asshole! The thing that confuses me the most about the selfishness of the drivers is that it’s in complete contrast to how Koreans behave in any other setting. Koreans are the most polite people ever, always giving to others, using the best manners, and bowing out of respect to everyone. So to drive like they are the only ones on the road is a mystery to me!

The one exception to the selfish drivers rule is roundabouts. Now I know we don’t have many roundabouts in the US (although I think they are becoming increasingly popular), most drivers understand the basic premise of how to use them. When you come to a roundabout, you yield to the cars that are in the roundabout. Simple, right? Well, not in Korea. In Korea, they do the exact opposite. They drive as if the person entering the roundabout has the right of way. It’s a frequent occurrence for a car to come to a complete stop in the middle of the roundabout to let loads of other cars in, sometimes causing a traffic jam in the roundabout, which is what a roundabout is designed to prevent! Another common action is to barrel into the roundabout without even slowing down, regardless of if there are other cars in the way, and expect the cars in the roundabout to stop for you. Blaring the horn does little to deter this unwanted behavior.

Driving in another country is always an adventure, and while driving in Korea has its share of frustrations, I enjoy that I can go on little adventures around this beautiful island I call home. Have you ever encountered any odd driving rules or habits in other countries?

Disclaimer: I have only driven in Jeju, and while it’s in Korea, I’m not sure if these problems exist in all of Korea or if they are specific to Jeju.

7 thoughts on “Driving in Korea

  1. Sara T.

    Omg this slice made my blood pressure rise. The roundabouts and speed traps would do me in. I was dying about the “Korean car apology” 😂! Tomorrow I will feel grateful driving 80mph to work. Thanks for the perspective!

    Reply
  2. livinglife816287820

    That sounds crazy, entertaining to read but thoroughly annoying to experience.
    In India there are basically no rules, people can get a licence without knowing how to drive, some people drive well, some appallingly, some downright dangerously or at a crawl. Cities in India are a nightmare with traffic, but Shillong though small has some of the worst traffic jams because of roads that were designed for pedestrians not vehicles, winding, narrow and often only one way without rhyme or reason. My husband finds it thrilling, I find it scary most of the time or annoying when it takes an hour to progress 3 miles into the city’s outskirts and am glad we don’t have to drive a lot!

    Reply
    1. aggiekesler Post author

      It’s definitely annoying to experience. I’ve been to Mumbai, and while I didn’t personally drive, I rode in enough taxis to know I wouldn’t want to drive there! There’s definitely pretty crazy traffic in India! The long times to go short distances remind me of my time in Bangkok and Jakarta…it’s the same there!

      Reply
  3. jaclynfre

    The roundabout situation is in theory a great idea and helps save on gas versus all of the stalled cars that wait at red lights in the US. However, when people don’t adhere to round-about rules, the ticketing process isn’t as clear. Selfish drivers could cause lots of headaches.

    Personal space is very different in Korea than in the US. Queuing up in Asian countries is different than in the US. I wonder if being anonymous in a car shields most Koreans from losing face when they act “selfishly” in their cars? They don’t have to face the person they are cutting off? hmmmm

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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