I was talking with my friend Charlie, who lives on Cyprus, and he said that he has a near-death experience on his bike about every 15km. As he told me, “the Greeks are crazy.” Well, I don’t know how many kilometers pass between each of my near-death experiences, but I do know that I have a lot of them here in Jeonju.
As well I should: Jeonju is, after all, in Korea, the leader of the OECD nations in traffic fatalities. People here drive like nihilists, I’ve decided. Or, perhaps they just drive excessively selfishly. That the windows of cars is tinted matters, I think… and it probably ties in to cultural factors, as well. I know that I myself enjoy usually at least one, and often two, potential-fatalities each time I venture out on my bicycle, and I am rather cautious now, especially after having broken my finger.
Kids are especially susceptible. The stats on this page horrify me, but surprise me not one bit. After all, it’s far more common to lean on the horn and keep speeding than it is to slow down or, you know, make an attempt not to kill someone.
And expatriates aren’t the only ones to notice. One time I told my girlfriend about an accident that almost happened, and how I’d yelled a cuss word into the window of the moron who’d nearly killed me. I mentioned that I tend to yell a lot when people do this sort of thing, and that I think they deserve to be yelled at. She said, “But… that’s like 50% of Korean drivers!” She’s right, too; I think people do just go crazy when they drive, here. I used to think it was because the driving population is so young, but now I think ten years is long enough to learn. Or, rather, it would be long enough to learn, if the police were actually enforcing any of the laws regarding traffic. They’re not, not really. The only cops I’ve seen involved in traffic have been directing it during huge events (like the World Cup) or conducting breathalyzer tests. I have yet to see a cop stop someone for speeding, or reckless driving. But it would be so easy, if they wanted to. You can see that sort of driving everywhere you go.
Which brings me to Near Death Experience #457. I was cycling home late one night, minding my own business. I was on the proper side of the roadthe right side, meaning I should not have had any oncoming cars playing chicken with me. I was even on the “bike path” (or what passes for one in Jeonju: as John Tallman, an artist I know, once said, “That’s not a bike path! It’s a sidewalk in Asia painted red!”).
Well, as I passed one seemingly unimportant street, I noticed a car in the going the wrong way in the right lane. Or, rather, headed against oncoming traffic. Except, of course, I was the only oncoming traffic. And I was crossing the wrong street when he decided to swerve, it seems. He turned a corner, looked me in the eye as he did so, and did not slow down. He simply tore around the corner and it was pure luck that I was out of his way. At the time, I’d had enough. This was the third time an idiot had almost hit me, and I hollered FUUUUUUUCK! at him through his window, and turned my bike and proceeded to give chase.
I don’t know what would have happened if I’d caught himmaybe I would have learned what it is like to have my head beaten in using Tae Kwon Dobut it turned out to be impossible anyway: he was really, really speeding and he apparently knew the neighborhood well: the little insignificant road he turned onto ended in an access to some kind of road out to the highway or something.
One more thing about cycling in Korea: not only to motorists fail to recognize you as a vehicle, but so do most pedestrians. They will walk out in front of you when you are approaching, even at speed, and they don’t even seem to register that being hit by a bicycle is dangerous. Actually, sometimes they seem to relate to cars that way, too. I think that Koreans not only drive like nihilists, they also seem to walk like nihilists (when around traffic). Some do, anyway. Enough to make cycling an exercise in extended periods of hyperawareness. So, some of those traffic fatalities have to do with kids being left to wander outside alone, with grannies and even young adults who don’t look where they are walking, and step out into the road right into oncoming traffic they could have seen if they’d only looked, at people who walk arm-in-arm in threes and refuse to move out of the way of idiots speeding up on scooters and in cars. (Those groups of girls walking holding hands in threes, blocking the “bike path”, they drive me the battiest of all.)
What’s the solution? Unforunately, the only solution is to pay a hell of a lot of attention the whole time, ride relatively slowly, and hope for the best. And always wear a helmet, I guess.