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[Lee Jae-min] Zigzags, cut-ins and sudden dashes

Last spring, driving on Olympic Highway along the Han River, I saw a young man caught by police for riding a motorcycle on the highway. To be sure, riding a motorbike on expressways or automobile-only highways is not permitted in Korea. In fact, Korea is one of the few countries (the only OECD member) where motorcycles are prohibited on those roads, mainly for safety reasons. This policy has been a trade hot potato for many years.

Domestically, a group of Korean motorbikers have brought as many as seven constitutional complaints since mid-2000s challenging the ban. The Constitutional Court rejected it each time, and the most recent one, filed last February, is pending. Again, the Constitutional Court mentions safety concerns.

Let’s then come to ordinary streets and alleys around us. A little bit of vibrant flows of motorcycles and scooters everywhere, if I may put it mildly. Criss-crossing the roads, they zigzag, cut in and out, and ride between the lanes. Some even use sidewalks and walkways. In the dense city environment their notorious maneuvering stands out. My guess is that to many first time visitors this may be one of the scenes that define the cityscape of Seoul.

Not surprisingly, accidents involving motorcycles and scooters have steadily increased. Reported national accidents reached 16,720 in 2017, marking a 6 percent increase from 2016. In turn, 2016 saw a 4 percent increase from the previous year.

And then here come all the cool gadgets. In the past few years, hoverboards, electric scooters, electric unicycles, electric skateboards and others have joined the city traffic. Thinner, stealthier and more maneuverable, they pose another challenge to pedestrians, drivers and riders.

Of course, some pedestrians should bear their own share of blame as well. Some of those walking, with their eyes glued to smartphones and ears covered by earphones and headphones, pose hazards to motorists and riders.

With old problems persisting and new ones emerging on the road, we should do something before they get worse. Safety education and public awareness campaigns are a no-brainer. Korea Transportation Safety Authority, a public entity in charge of road safety, should invest more time and resources to address these challenges: it seems that their focus is still mostly on conventional cars and car accidents. Vague regulations about new personal mobility devices are waiting for immediate attention and prompt updates.

Likewise safety devices and paraphernalia should be stipulated for these new transport devices. Visual or audible signals are critical to alert pedestrians and drivers to oncoming personal transport machines. Most of them are electricity-powered, so very silent otherwise. Tellingly, many countries, including the United States, EU and Japan, are introducing new regulations to require artificial noise for electric cars for safety reasons. Korea is still in the studying stage. The same “artificial noise” discussion on electric motorbikes has also started, again for safety reasons.

Then consider this latest development. The Seoul City Government’s new plan: it will subsidize delivery companies for their purchase of electric delivery motorcycles, as a countermeasure to the fine dust problem. Electric motorcycles? A very clean transport indeed. A smart policy to cope with a city haze. But don’t forget that its silence could be lethal on the road. Proper warning devices should be attached in tandem with recent discussions in the global community.

A lenient culture toward motorcycles and scooters on the road should be reconsidered. But at the same time, our culture of setting a stopwatch after placing a delivery order should also be changed. It is this customer demand that pits delivery service companies against each other in the race of fastest delivery. And most of deliveries are made by motorcycles and scooters. Deliverers are paid by the number of runs they make. So, the culture and the system require delivery riders to run faster and faster.

Enhanced road safety will benefit all of us – walkers, riders and drivers alike - in this dense city.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.