Seoul’s mayoral election set for June 4 brings the issue of road safety to the surface with the assertion that the capital’s roads take lives. By some standards South Korean roads are more dangerous than China’s and the worst in the OECD with inconsistent traffic laws and uneven enforcement.
Mayoral candidate and former Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik campaigns for Seoul’s mayoral seat describing the city as vibrant, yet overshadowed by the number of traffic deaths. He promises to “turn Seoul into a city that saves people, not a city where people get killed.”
While plane crashes occupy headlines and lead broadcasts for weeks on end the hazards and costs of travel by road rarely top the news. Worldwide more than 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents yearly. It’s the number one cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds.
In South Korea, about 5,500 people die in vehicle related accidents yearly.
Kim Ki-bok of the Green Speed Campaign has been working on traffic safety for 30 years. While he sites the need for improvements in maintenance and infrastructure, he pinpoints the lack of political holding back road safety.
“Politicians and the government care about popularity and worry a lot about the potential backlash from the Korean people if they strengthen punishments for traffic law violations,” says Kim.
Kim’s struggling NGO and others that work vocally argue that stronger punishments will save lives, but Kim says such advice falls on deaf ears, “it’s not enough to persuade politicians and decision makers.”
Looking at more statistics concerning South Korea’s traffic safety record bears out Kim’s position. According to the South Korean Police Agency 8 million speeding tickets were given out in 2013. Drunk driving remains a huge problem, although some progress may be underway with the number of offenders caught declining from 430,000 in 2008 to 240,000 in 2012. However, repeat drunk-driving offenders show no decrease over the same period.
But the primary measure, the traffic fatality rate, has not significantly declined, indicating that while there may be enforcement to some extent, punitive measures fail to translate into changes in driving behavior, and those seeking to skirt the law have technologies on their side as politicians duck the issue.
Automobile navigation systems warn drivers of upcoming traffic cameras for those that fail to see the numerous speed limit and camera warning signage. Even drunk drivers can get an app that maps the locations of roadblocks to keep that drunk drive home on the safe side, something the police would like to see made illegal.
Drunk driving caused 815 traffic deaths in 2012, with speed attributed to more than 500 fatalities. Green Speed’s Kim places great emphasis on the speed element, pointing to measures in Europe to improve road safety and the need for public awareness.
“There should be national consensus and through a campaign we can remind the public the importance of life, and to save lives we should reduce speed. That’s what my organization does, and what we will keep on doing.”
The Daegu Police Department handed out 260,000 tickets for speeding with the help of traffic cameras in 2012. Drivers cited with 250,000 of those tickets paid an extra 10,000 won fine, avoiding penalty points and potentially suspended licenses.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye may be getting tough on drivers, at least some of them. With her first amnesty this lunar New Year she issued 2.8 million pardons for traffic violations, including some 40,000 who had their penalty points wiped out. But unlike amnesties issued by the previous three South Korean presidents, she held off pardoning those found guilty of a hit and run, and drunk drivers.