Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On The Drivers of Seoul

So, while I may not be legally able to drive, and I may not be actually able to drive very well, I'm from New York City. I can recognize recklessly brilliant driving when I see it. And I have to say, from what I've seen in the past few days, the meekest, most passive Seoul motorist would send a Gotham cabbie careering headlong into the median.

These people are completely insane. The city is lousy with alleys that lie just off the main thoroughfares, and these backstreets seem to be completely without traffic lights, signs, or even reasonable, legally binding rules of right of way. The cars in there behave just like pedestrians, and use pedestrian conventions: if you moved first, or moved faster, you get to go ahead (and I'm not only talking about at intersections). Also, traffic direction is considered as, at best, polite suggestion. Naturally, the alleys don't distinguish between road and sidewalk. When there are sidewalks, people park on them.

Part of this, I think, comes out of the size of the automobiles here. Even the SUVs are petite, and the trucks are downright cute. And then there's the Korean attitude toward urban interactions, which can be summed up as the (rather healthy): "Get the fuck out of my way." Shoving is perfectly acceptable, and I have yet to speak or hear spoken the phrase silyehamnita (which I understand to mean 'excuse me', although I have not, obviously, been able to confirm this).

For instance, getting my physical in the hospital the other day, I was prodded out of the way of an impatient nurse. She was using a wheelchair, which contained a vague-eyed old woman, to do the poking.

But back to the traffic. The rules of the alleys apply pretty much to every road, vast, moderate, or nominal, in the entire city. And yet, conveying the sense of exhilarating terror which comes from being driven in this environment is difficult. I could try to describe it, but a tale full of screeching turns and daredevil mergers would get dull fast and, anyway, it wouldn't really prove my point.

I tried taking pictures of the traffic, but in a still photo a genius split-second merger executed in perfect time looks just like an awkwardly hesitant one. The drama of speed and madness just doesn't come through.

So I settled on two pictures which, in an understated way, demonstrate why you would die if you even thought about driving here:

This is a six-lane highway. That is a sign allowing a U-turn. There is one at virtually every intersection on every major road. Is oncoming traffic stopped when people are pulling uies? Meh--if it feels like it.

This is our bus driver. To his left, just above the steering wheel, is a television. Yes, he is watching it. No, he's not just glancing. And no, as you will see from the car in middle of the picture, we are not stopped.

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