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[Lee Jae-min] Road rage punished and soothed

Driving in Seoul is never easy. It requires constant attention. Buses and taxies abruptly cut in and motorcycles zigzag through the traffic at high speed. When asked to list the memories of their life in Seoul, foreigners tend to put driving way down the list. Over time, however, you realize that there are certain rules on the road, and once you understand them things are not actually as hectic as they seem.

There is one thing, however, that is becoming a new threat on the road: road rage and the ensuing retaliatory driving. Many of us, of course, are good drivers who always remain careful not to harm fellow drivers on the streets. But there are just some people who become Mr. Hyde when they sit behind the wheels. With the benefit of anonymity from windshields and tinted glasses, in a fit of road rage they trade klaxons, high beams and nasty barbs verbally and signally. Some dangerous encounters end up with car chases, blocking the lanes and sudden slamming of brakes. In 2013, 1,600 cases of retaliatory driving were reported to the police with 35 fatal casualties.

The government is finally stepping in. The month of July has been designated as a special awareness campaign period in which people are warned against the dangers of retaliatory driving and ensuing penalties. Now, it is not simply a matter of courtesy on the road but also a serious criminal issue. “Threat” or “assault” charges have been filed against some of reckless drivers who have employed various scare tactics against other drivers in the adjoining lanes. More importantly, instant rage is not a mitigating factor anymore. Hopefully, this summer campaign can cool down some of the hot-tempered drivers and turn around the driving culture.

The latest criminal punishments have been made possible because of technological advancement. Now, almost every car is fitted with a small black box recording everything on the road. Those in the passenger seats are quick to take out their smartphones to record passing vehicles. When so many cars have cameras and when almost everyone carries a personal recording device, it has become easy to record aggressive driving and retaliatory behavior to be later turned in to the police as evidence. So, now luckily it has become almost impossible for a threatening driving incident to go unpunished.

Punishment is one thing but soothing is another. Interestingly, almost 80 percent of the drivers of retaliatory driving somehow say that they would not have done it if the other driver had signaled “sorry” or waved. In other words, in many instances, it is just the absence of one word “sorry” that triggers outbursts and chases. So, when we happen to encounter angry drivers on the streets today, the best tactic to protect ourselves before police officers arrive is to wave “sorry” and blink the emergency lights.

If so, perhaps like a mounted brake light on the back window of a car, we might want to install a smiling face icon. When a sorry driver presses the button in the driver’s seat, the smiling face will light up, and the next driver regains composure and remains a law-abiding citizen again. If it is expensive, just smiling face decals would do the trick. Maybe “Sorry Driver on Board” or “It is All My Fault” yellow signs can cool down chasing drivers. If a simple “sorry” can really save us from road rage and retaliatory driving, we can consider all these funny options.

The police’s effort to crack down on reckless drivers this summer is going to protect good citizens on the road. It is long overdue. The summer campaign will also make those behind the wheels considerate of other fellow drivers on the streets.

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. -- Ed.