Thursday, April 9, 2009

Drunk driving in Korea with a BAL of 0.03%?

[above: This job sucks.]

I have lived in Korea for over a third of my life, including time as a teenager and the bulk of my adult years. During that time I have been hit twice by drunk drivers, both times said inebriated inflicting serious damage to my car. Both times the other vehicle involved was a Porter flat-bed truck used to haul things.

In the first case, the driver smashed into me from behind, sending my car spinning into a construction site wall as I was making a right turn. The second time it was in a narrow neighborhood side street, with the driver so unable to control his vehicle that he hit me twice: the initial collision and then a second time after he had knocked my car backward and he kept going without slowing down.

In the US I've fared better. I've been hit only once by a hit-and-run driver who was in fact probably drinking. That time my life was actually in serious danger since the driver (who drove right through a crosswalk where I happened to be on my bicycle) plowed into me and had me flying through the air, then nearly running me over as he fled the scene. My bike, wedged underneath his vehicle, sent sparks flying as he drove away.

As you may guess, I'm not a big fan of drunk drivers. In the first Korean case, the driver was fined about 2 or 3 million won and lost his driver license (though he continued to drive) and in the second case I successfully demanded a settlement that was enough to fix my car and take a trip for two to Guam.

In the one California case, the guy's insurance company paid me $500 to replace the bike and provide for pain and suffering; since he had driven away, they couldn't do a Breathalyzer test on him and they didn't fully prosecute him for fleeing the scene of an accident he caused. He essentially got off with a slap on the wrist.

When the first incident happened in Korea, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the BAL (blood alcohol level) that determines the legal definition of driving while intoxicated is 0.05%, half what it was when I was a kid in California and still several points below the 0.08% they had changed it to when I was driving in California.

0.05% is not a lot of drinks, and it gives some teeth to the ubiquitous sobriety checkpoints one sees in Korea. Once city governments really started taking that seriously, there was a real threat of one getting a fine or even jail time for drunk driving, so people either used that as an excuse to not drink or to quit drinking early, started taking cabs, or began to employ the taeri unjŏn system (대리운전; car-driving service).

The standards are going to get even stricter if several legislative proposals go through. Among the new regulations would be lowering the drunk-driving cut-off to a BAL of 0.03%. That is not a lot of alcohol (two or three shots of soju according to the article, though it doesn't say what time frame or what body size).

Moreover the drunk driver's passengers could get a 200,000 won fine! That, I dare say, is a good way to harness the shame and responsibility culture that has been neglected lately. The punishment for drunk driving itself would go up from two years to three years' imprisonment and/or a fine of ten million won, up from five million won.

Of course, drunk drivers are not the only hazards on the road. Drowsy drivers, careless pedestrians, reckless drivers, etc., are all contributors to Korea's astronomical road fatality rates.

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