Driving in Korea

When we moved here, I had heard so much about driving here that I was pretty sure I’d never want to attempt it.  I knew taxis were easy to come by and cheap, and I’d heard that driving here was nightmarish.  So with only one car, I figured Kevin (braver by far than I am when it comes to driving) would drive to work and the kids and I would stick with taxis.

Fast forward to 6 weeks of piling 4 kids into taxis, keeping them from kicking the driver’s seat, rolling down the windows, talking too loudly, and climbing out at every stop, and I was pretty much done.  Taxis may be nice enough when you’re on your own, but with 4 kids under 7 in tow, they were nothing short of hellish.  (You can read about our taxi life here. I can actually laugh about it now, so that’s a big step.)

So I got my driver’s license and began the task of getting used to a new city, and more importantly, a whole new paradigm of driving.

One of the wackiest (hence, my favorite) sights on the streets:
A mannequin in a rain coat with moving arms warning you off.
Please also note the lights behind him (her?) that look like
they were taken directly off the top of a police cruiser.


First of all, let me tell you that driving here is remarkably similar to the States.  The cars drive on the right, traffic signals are the same (no stop signs, though), and most of the roads are wide and straight.

Now for the differences:


Korean drivers use their turn signal infrequently, or not at all.  It depends on the driver, I suppose.  However, they do use their hazards quite often.  They are used in the same way an American might wave out the window and say “Thanks for letting me over,” or more often, “My bad!  Sorry I cut you off, but I hope this gesture signals my goodwill!  We good?  Great.”


Right of way
I used to think this was tricky.  I couldn’t figure out the rules of who went first when someone approached an uncontrolled intersection.  (And there are lots of uncontrolled intersections, because remember: no stop signs.)  Eventually I figured it out, though.  Whoever gets to an intersection first goes first, no matter if (according to States laws) you don’t have the right of way, or even if you’re inches away from a collision.  This may seem crazy (to me, it often still does) but at least there is a method to this madness.  It’s also important to note that rarely do I see a Korean getting annoyed with these near-misses.  They just accept it, unlike us Americans.


These are ubiquitous, even more so than taxis.  Mostly they are delivery vehicles, but sometimes they are driven by regular ol’ people.  The odd thing about mopeds is that they seem to follow both the rules of pedestrians and autos, depending on what will serve them more quickly.  They drive on streets, sidewalks, into apartment complexes, through parks, you name it.  No one even bats an eye.  I found this YouTube video that shows this well.  It’s a little long, but if you skip the first minute or so, you will find some funny stuff.



Are useless.  Oh, wait.  That’s not nice.  Police are useless at traffic enforcement.  Koreans have absolutely no fear of them when it comes to driving.  An officer may stand on the side of the road and wave you over, but unless, like me you are petrified of persons in authority/uniform/with flashing lights, you could arguably drive right past them, waving back all the while.  I’ve never seen them pursue anyone in their patrol vehicles, and from other accounts, I don’t think it happens here much, if at all.


Traffic cameras

Now these.  These cameras are the bad guys on Korean roads.  They are EVERYWHERE.  They catch you at red lights, speeding, illegally using the bus lane on the freeway.  Not that I know from, ahem, experience or anything.  The good news is that there are signs everywhere telling where the next camera is.  So if you’re not singing at the top of your lungs to Beethoven’s Wig or yelling at your kids to buckle up, I said, and stop touching your sister! then you should be okay.


Driving Culture

One thing that was pointed out to me when I complained about the driving here was that Korea has only recently (within the last 30 years, give or take) become economically prosperous enough for most families to have a car.  So this is new to them by our standards.  They don’t have the ingrained driving mentality that we do in the States because many adults now didn’t have a family car as a child.  Okay, I get it.  I’m an elitist Americo-centric jerk.

But – call me crazy – I’d still appreciate a turn signal now and then.

Note: I really wish I had more photos for this post.  There is some seriously funny photographic opportunities around here.  Perhaps a Driving in Korea, Part II is in order…

Head on over to Conversion Diary for Jen’s Quick Takes and a whole lot more.

Postscript: All Catholics, bloggers and non-bloggers, are invited to participate in the May edition of 3 Reasons I Love Catholicism. The post will be up at 8 a.m. Pacific Time on Friday and the link-up widget will remain open until May 31.



  1. I immensely enjoyed reading this! So interesting!!

  2. Micaela! That traffic mannequin fooled Brian forever! He was here a month before he figure out it was not a real person – I attribute this NOT to an intelligence issue, but rather to an issue with being overwhelmed by the smells and sights. And so funny you mention Koreans NOT being disturbed by the total lack of courtesy! I often say that it is clear there are strict gun laws here, or those behaviors would MOST CERTAINLY be prohibited! Sure even THIS doesn’t make you want to stay??? SURE??!?!

    • Well, you and I both know Brian is a smarty-pants, so it couldn’t be that. Maybe it was the hard hat shading the face? Still, the make-up should have given it away.

  3. Sounds hilarious! I spent three and a half months in Australia and was glad I didn’t have to drive (except once, on a farm, for fun) the whole time I was there. I can’t imagine driving in Korea or other places where it’s supposed to be crazy, and I consider myself a brave driver (icy roads? no problem!). Good for you for going for it!

    • Thanks, Bonnie! I think it’s not as scary as some places might be. I know I’ve heard insane things about Hong Kong, for example. Here it is really about knowing where you are going and defensive driving. Otherwise it’s pretty safe,if annoying.

  4. You must write more and more about life in Korea before it’s over!! It’s so so interesting!!

  5. You are so brave. Annoying taxi rides from hell or not, I don’t think I could drive there. I guess that’s why you are the globetrotter and I am the Florida trotter!

    • It’s funny, I don’t consider myself brave. I am a super chicken about a lot of things. But I guess I DID travel halfway around the world with 4 kids. Huh. Perhaps I’m braver than I think.

  6. I miss Korea-driving SO much (not kidding at all!)! I got such a kick out of the hazard-light-phenomenon. It was like saying “I know I’m doing something not-quite-right but I’ve got my hazards on so it’s ok!”

    Anyhow, needless to say, LOVED these takes! When we were there we joked that we should be allowed to use “I was in Korea” as our excuse if we forgot and ran a red because no one was there. Even a year and a half later I still find myself coming to a red stop, looking both ways, and then wanting to go.

    • Maia, we were home last summer and we had to curtail many bad habits. Thankfully years of southern CA driving overrode the Korean instincts. Most of the time. 🙂

  7. Very interesting and funny! In Japan they use those mannequins as scarecrows, and they. are. creepy! The fake traffic guys here are flat boards instead. We do have stop signs, but you would never know it. I’m convinced that I am the only one who ever notices them!

  8. I love Beethoven’s Wig!!! Totally an excuse for getting caught on camera!