Asan, South Korea, where Kim Min-sik, 9, was run over in a school zone. Photo: Wikipedia

The South Korean government recently introduced an amendment to the Road Traffic Act providing for harsh penalties designed to reduce car accidents in school zones. While many welcomed the so-called “Min-sik Law,” given the number of children’s deaths due to road accidents that have dominated headlines in recent years, others have criticized it – as either going too far or not far enough.

The Min-sik Law takes its name from Kim Min-sik, a nine-year-old boy in Asan, a city in South Chungcheong province, who was killed in September last year in front of his school. The driver, according to the boy’s parents, ran over their son while exceeding the school-zone speed limit of 30km/h.

The boy’s parents lobbied the National Assembly, calling for stronger legislation to back children’s safety in school zones. Other Koreans made similar calls, and at the end of March, the National Assembly revised the Road Traffic Act, enacting the Min-sik Law.

According to the new law, a driver who kills a child can be sentenced to more than three years and up to life in prison. A person convicted of causing injury to a child by recklessly driving a car in a school zone can be fined up to 30 million won (US$24,000) or imprisoned up to 15 years.

A tougher law was certainly needed to protect children from car accidents, as figures from the Traffic Accident Analysis System operated by the South Korean Road Traffic Authority indicate. But after the Min-sik Law was enacted, it became controversial.

Some welcomed the law, but many drivers came out in strong opposition, noting that it is not easy to prevent an accident when a child suddenly runs out into the road. Many also complained that the penalties under the new law are unduly harsh, as heavy as the punishment for a rapist under Article 297 of the Criminal Act.

As more people are wary of driving in school zones, some telecommunication companies have added an alert function to navigation apps. Fretting that they risk being punished under the Min-sik Law, an increasing number of drivers are using these navigation applications to avoid school zones.

Under such circumstances, some have called for revisions of the Min-sik Law. On the official website of the Blue House, the presidential office, more than 350,000 people signed a petition for such revisions. In response, an official of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety pledged that the ministry would install equipment to prevent accidents in school zones, while providing effective traffic safety education in elementary schools.

“The Min-sik Law won’t punish all drivers for causing car accidents in school zones, if they observed the law and tried to prevent the accident,” he added.

Despite such promises, many drivers have denounced the Min-sik Law. Amid such negative views on the law, online trolls started to demonize the parents of the boy who died in Asan, claiming that they took advantage of citizens’ sympathy for their son’s death, urging the government to bring in a law that could land many drivers in prison.

The boy’s parents said they would welcome revisions to the Min-sik Law, if it has some problems. They argued that their intention was to press for improvements to children’s safety, in the hopes of preventing another tragic death caused by a car accident in a school zone.

All drivers must observe the speed limits, preventing accidents. Strict laws and harsh punishments are necessary to reduce the occurrence of fatal accidents. But more discussion about the Min-sik Law is needed.

Many question whether the tough penalties under the Min-sik Law can really guarantee a reduction in accidents in school zones. And some school zones lack safety equipment, such as fences. Policymakers and citizens need to keep looking for effective ways to reduce traffic accidents in school zones, possibly including revisions of the Min-sik Law.

Da-Sol Goh is a translator in Seoul. She is a graduate of Myongji University in Seoul, where she studied law and English literature. As a translator, she mainly handles foreign articles from anglophone countries dealing with politics and international issues.