The Steering Wheel of Life

The Steering Wheel 1

It has been 35 years since I first got my driver’s license. At the time, the state of the driver’s facilities were despicably inadequate. Since vehicle ownership was uncommon, practice was often limited to 30 minutes to an hour, once a week. Moreover, the exam itself was purely a test over the mastery of the vehicle, not the rules of the road.


Furthermore, because I obtained my license out in the country, the facility was most likely severely lacking in comparison to those in Seoul or other major cities. The facility that I visited, the only one in the region, did not have a sedan to practice with, which left me no choice but to practice with a truck. Not only was the truck manual transmission, even its appearance was worn and lacking credibility like a vehicle about to be junked.


The practice course was a noticeably small empty lot with a T course, S course, and a low hill, limiting practice to stopping, and starting on an incline. It was a tiny place indeed, leaving no room for thoughts of practicing parking or cruising. What’s more, the vehicle was so very old, and due to repetitive gear shifts and shortness in the course itself, it was terribly tiring and stressful for the frail old me, who came home aching all over.


There actually was a lesson over the driving etiquettes prior to taking to the course, but it was merely a formality and the exam generally required but a cursory glance over the expected questions to pass. Of course, I passed on my first attempt and obtained my license, but I’ve not once driven a truck ever since. Also, because I was technologically illiterate I’d never really driven a full manual, and the cars that I’ve actually driven were all fully automatic. There were a few occasions where I tried to learn to drive a manual with my husband for the reason that manual is cheaper than automatic. Though I gave up on that lesson, it fortunately didn’t result in a divorce.


The reason I bring up such ancient memories of practice driving is because every time I drive here in Korea, I get curious about just how much the education process has changed. For me, after I got my first license, I had two more opportunities to visit a driver’s facility. Once was to obtain an international driver’s license, and the other was to obtain a new license in the US. Though the new license I got was obtained just a few years after my first one, I remember how different the scope and perspective of the examination was.


If one exam tested the technical ability to handle a vehicle and to finish the course within the allocated time, the other assumed that the technical skill was a given, and analyzed the driver’s capacity to identify, understand, and react safely to sudden, and/or dangerous situations – in other words, make safe judgments. Fortunately for me, nothing out of the ordinary happened, and I passed on my first attempt after driving carefully and timidly as my personality. However, because an ambulance appeared out of the blue and caught my husband off guard during his exam, he couldn’t drive as safely as he learned, and that resulted in him failing his first exam. Of course, he was considerably more experienced of a driver than I was.


Starting in the year 1960 when traffic deaths were first tallied at 1,402, the number rose gradually but rapidly, reaching the historic high of 13,429 in the year 1991. According to the National Police Agency, since recording 4,097 deaths in the year 1977, the number of traffic deaths hit below 5,000 for the first time in 37 years, in 2014. Though we’d shamefully led the member nations of the OECD (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) in traffic deaths until now, we’ve now come down from leading that figure – but it’s just one down, in 2nd place. Moreover, the rate of traffic deaths in our country is 4.1 per 100,000 (2011 data), which is 3 times greater than the OECD average of 1.4. Above all, Korea has the highest rate of traffic accidents in people over the age of 60, out of all OECD members.


There are many analysis of the cause of traffic accident. Thus the solutions too are various in their directions, and they’ve been struggling to prevent traffic accidents which produce as many deaths and disabilities as warfare. Though a great deal of infrastructure such as tunnels, highways, cameras, and skyways were added, the number of vehicles are also growing. When the number of vehicles increase, the odds of accidents also increase. However, that isn’t necessarily inevitable. To reduce the number of traffic accidents, rather than push for a change in the number of vehicles or the environment, we must first create a shift in the way people drive and think. Like the old adage, “A leopard can’t change its spots”, how you learn to drive the first time is the most important.


My opinion is that driver’s education must first change if traffic order and accidents are to improve. Drivers must first learn that the most important thing in driving to a destination isn’t to get there as quickly as possible by passing all others, but to reach the destination as safely as possible. To achieve this, drivers must first learn that butting in doesn’t grant you the right of way; they must learn where and when vehicles have the right of way, and practice it. They must learn that waiting for their turn and yielding is the shortcut to maintaining order, that in doing so, it actually gets you there faster than cutting and butting in. Driver’s education mustn’t get caught up in competition.


Above all, the most important lesson is to remember that when you’re behind the wheel, the lives of not only you, but other drivers are in your hands – for we should never be risking our lives falling asleep behind the wheel or trying to get ahead. The lesson we need to learn before learning about the state of a vehicle’s engine or the rules of the road is teaching the value of life. Drivers should remind themselves of this not only when they first learn to drive but each time they operate a vehicle, and a regular re-education at a national scale is also needed. A lot of budgets need to be spent on driver’s education, including that which are blindly leaked, and bled away.


Recently my youngest son received tragic news of a high school friend who perished in a traffic accident. It seems that it came as a shock because he wasn’t just an acquaintance. No twenty-something should ever perish in a traffic accident at such a tender age, and such misfortunes can be prevented through education. At the very least, the harms can be reduced.


me profilebw  Marie Hong/Editor-in-Chief

Translation: Jung In Kim