A fellow named Mac McCleary left his stamp on history with a single quote: “Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead.”
After a hiatus from being behind the wheel for some 30 years, I have achieved minor local notoriety in just six weeks by being involved in two freeway accidents.
Both took place on weekends. Both involved holiday buses in South Korea.
The business end of the bus
The first time, an October Saturday morning, was while driving on the highway to the city of Daejeon to photograph a wedding. I found my plans suddenly canceled.
I was in the number two lane (counting from the highway medium divider); the number one lane was the dedicated bus/multi-passenger lane. A speeding black sport-utility vehicle came up behind me in the number three lane and cut into the safety space I had been maintaining between me and the car ahead of me.
Realizing that he was going too fast, the SUV driver slammed on his brakes. Having driven 80,000 kilometers on southern California highways during my last year in the US, I was familiar with how to lower my speed quickly and safely.
But within a second of touching my brakes, the bus hit me hard from behind, sending my car spinning into the number two lane and thereupon slamming into the driver’s door of another car.
The bad news was my car’s front and trunk were destroyed. The good news is that no one was seriously injured in spite of the fact that the traffic had been going about 100km/h.
As I came out of shock, I noticed that all the airbags were deployed within my Hyundai Avante, including the one on the steering column that I had punctured with my chest. But otherwise, the passenger/trunk component was in remarkably good shape – a testimony to Korean design and construction. After a month of outpatient care for a sprained ribcage, I am now driving a Kia K3, a near twin vehicle to the Avante.
According to the black-box cameras in both the bus and my car, I was not at fault. Consequently the insurance companies assessed me a zero-percent rating for accident responsibility.
The second highway accident took place just six weeks later. I was with a group of diplomats returning from a culinary tour of the east-coast city of Sokcho. This time I was a passenger seated near the front, affording me a good view of the bus driver desperately trying to apply the brakes so as not to pile into the four cars ahead of him. He failed.
As a result, we ended up with a five-vehicle crash. Since we were only going about 50km/h, there were no injuries, but at least one of the four cars was totally destroyed.
Why weekends are different
While we were waiting for the police and insurance adjusters to arrive, the five drivers gathered to discuss the accident and so on. One of the female Korean bus passengers approached the group and suggested that everyone was at fault for not maintaining a safety distance ahead of each vehicle.
“Oh, no! Not on weekends!” all five drivers responded.
“What?” the woman could not believe her ears. “Not on weekends?”
The male drivers insisted that if they don’t tailgate, weekend traffic will move too slowly on Korean highways.
That may be a common belief here, but physics are pretty universal when it comes to time and distance.
Bunching vehicles into de facto close-moving convoys does not in fact move them any faster than single vehicles that maintain safe distances between themselves. An American study showed that when it came to coast-to-coast driving, the total time was almost exactly the same for tailgating drivers as safe drivers. The major difference was that tailgaters are more likely to lose major time by being part of a traffic accident.
To be fair, Koreans hardly have a monopoly on this dangerous driving habit. My brother has given up trying to stop his Tahitian wife from tailgating in Polynesia. My son told me that van drivers are infamous for tailgating in his adopted home town of Bangkok.
Some friends have attributed my “Luck of the Irish” for sparing me serious injury. Indeed, when I review my first accident, I can easily imagine I could have become a fatality statistic had a truck hit me during those brief seconds when my car was out of control.
At the same time, I am grateful that most experienced Korean drivers are skilled, safe and courteous. It is the exceptions, unfortunately, who irk all other drivers. Compared with those in many countries, Koreans do tend to drive fast. But thanks to the many speed cameras, the overall driving situation is reasonable.
Nonetheless, as someone once advised, “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly.” And, if I may add, be sure to give your angel enough space to protect you from those behind and in front you when you drive on Korea’s weekend freeways.