One of the first things I noticed about Korea was its enormous inner-city streets and aggressive drivers. While the typical avenue in New York City will have about six lanes – these days with one possibly reserved for buses only and another for short-term parking and deliveries- Seoul and its surrounding satellite cities have major arterial roads that surpass ten lanes with two directional traffic. Despite pedestrian lights it makes crossing the street daunting for the most able-bodied humans, let alone the elderly and disabled. Worst of all are the drivers. They not only act like kings of the city, they are treated like royalty as well.

Crosswalks are viewed by Korean drivers as little more than decorative paint on the street. Cars rarely stop or even slow down when they approach one and they certainly don’t yield to pedestrians even if they are halfway through crossing. Most people here tend to acquiesce to the led-footed drivers as they scurry out of the way to let the car through. Coming from New York, I bask in the opportunity to stand my ground and force them to halt, waving my arms and yelling out a few colourful comments in a mix of English and shoddy Korean for good measure. It’s my small way of protesting. Korea is a far cry from Germany where drivers slam on their brakes the instant a pedestrian places a single toe into the crosswalk.

Koreans park wherever they please, such as the middle of a sidewalk blocking access to a crossing. Source: Robert S. Ellis

Rampant illegal parking is also a nationwide scourge. Cars park on the side of busy streets ignoring the warnings of signs and threats of getting towed. They park on the sidewalks and in the middle of crosswalks creating very dangerous walking conditions. Not only can the pedestrians not see around the corner before stepping onto the street, but neither can the speeding maniacs in their Hyundai SUVs.

I don’t blame the drivers. Why shouldn’t they park where they please and rush through intersections large and small, clipping red lights and speeding around blind curves? No one is stopping them. I haven’t seen a single ticket for illegal parking even when there are traffic police walking right by grotesque scenes of automobile pillaging. Most cars in Korea have handy GPS navigation devices that warn them of speed and red light cameras so they know where they can get away with cheating death. Yet pedestrians are ticketed frequently for not crossing a light quickly enough or straying a few metres from the painted crosswalk.

Coming from New York, I bask in the opportunity to stand my ground and force them to stop, waving my arms and yelling out a few colourful comments in a mix of English and shoddy Korean for good measure.

Here’s a relatively simple idea for solving this problem: a two-pronged approach of enforcement and education.

First, change the underlying system of priority. Pedestrians should be crowned as the supreme leaders of the streets. This means changing the way traffic police behave. Instead of ticketing people for not making the crossing in time, go after the drivers speeding through red lights and parking on sidewalks. After all, a car rushing through a red light is much more likely to injure or kill someone than a person who is trying to clear the crosswalk in time.

Second, change the way Koreans learn how to drive. Great emphasis should be placed on respecting pedestrians while behind the wheel. New drivers should be made to understand that they are driving a two-tonne weapon. If they accidentally hit a person it could easily result in manslaughter. That isn’t something that should be taken lightly. Failure to yield to pedestrians who have begun a crossing at a marked crosswalk should result in both hefty financial penalties and a system of points against a driver’s operating license. Get warned more than once and the driver should temporarily lose the privilege to drive until they complete driver reeducation courses. Perhaps obtaining a driver’s license in Korea is too easy. The high number of Chinese flocking to the peninsula to obtain a driver’s license certainly makes it seem that way.

Pedestrians should always be aware of their surroundings and take care to look both ways before crossing any street, but they are physically vulnerable. They should be able to walk in the city confidently knowing that the law (and its enforcers) is on their side. With proper enforcement measures the dangerous car-first mentality of Korea could be reversed. It shouldn’t be a financial or personnel burden on the police, either. Redirect manpower from ticketing pedestrians to ticketing reckless drivers. Boost revenue by blanketing the plethora of illegally parked cars with parking tickets. In actuality, the shift to a pedestrian-first mentality could result in a temporary or even permanent windfall for the police, depending on whether Koreans decide to get the message and learn to be better drivers.