Friday, August 17, 2007

Why I Don’t Drive in Korea and You Shouldn’t Either


I’ve been living here in Korea for more than a decade since I graduated law school, and during that time I haven’t driven a car.

Somehow I stumbled across the Korea Beat weblog, which features high-quality translations from the Korean press (apparently as a study aid for the blogger) and the occasional lurid cheesecake photo—thanks for that!—and read a translation that perfectly captures why I don’t drive. It’s definitely recommended reading.

Korea handles automobile accidents according to an odd “blame-sharing” concept whereby both parties are always deemed to have some fault in the accident. The usual apportionment is 60-40. What this means is that the driver who caused the accident bears 60% of the responsibility (and therefore cost), and the driver who simply got crashed into gets stuck with 40% of the responsibility on some cockamamie theory that had he not been operating a motor vehicle he would not have gotten into the accident. So the 60% driver pays 60% of the damages incurred by the driver he struck, but receives from the driver he struck an offsetting payment of 40% of the 60% driver’s damages.

This concept on liability is so different from what Westerners are accustomed to and expect that a foreign victim of an accident is usually stunned at the weirdness of it all.

We had a client and friend, an avid motorcyclist, who got himself struck by a bus—from behind, after the bus blew through a red light. Our friend was still deemed 20% responsible for the accident even though he spent weeks flat on his back laid up in the hospital, and had to pay the bus company some settlement for its damages (this was offset against what the bus company owed him, of course).

The translated article at Korea Beat notes one absurdity that follows from the blame-allocation method followed here. If a driver of an expensive car recklessly smashes into a driver of an affordable car, that 60-40 split usually means that the “guilty party” has much greater damages. Luxury autos here run about W100,000,000—if that car is totaled through its driver’s recklessness and stupidity, the victim would have to pony up W40,000,000 for repair costs. If the victim’s car is worth, say, W10,000,000 and is totaled, the luxury-car driver pays only W6,000,000 for those damages.

So the innocent driver gets his car totaled and receives a bill for W34,000,000 from the guy who hit him. If his insurance policy limit is less than this, the net result of the accident is cash out of pocket for the innocent driver.

Add to that the equally frightening concept of criminal responsibility in all cases of personal injury by vehicle (I might write more on this in the future), and I am absolutely not interested in getting behind the wheel of a car. My office is a W1900 (basic flagfall) fare from my home, so my daily commute cost is only five bucks anyway.

Here’s the business-lawyer twist at the end: One of the common benefits to expatriate managers here in Korea is a company-furnished car and driver. That seems extravagant to an outsider, and as a lawyer who handles a lot of employment matters I get asked about the car-and-driver demand all the time. In my opinion, Korean law makes a car and driver (and a big insurance policy limit!) a very good idea for anyone who can afford it. (In essence, that’s what I do with the short-to-mid-distance taxis.) The time that one loses in the case of an accident is potentially too much of a distraction from getting the job done.

And going to jail for a simple car accident is something totally unexpected to an expat. You can’t get much work done from jail.

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