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[Seoul Struggles 13] Motorcyclists ignore laws, endanger pedestrians

Seoulites complain of noise, frequent traffic violations as motorcyclists rush deliveries

A motorcyclist drives past an illegally parked motorcycle on a sidewalk in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, Monday. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
A motorcyclist drives past an illegally parked motorcycle on a sidewalk in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, Monday. (Ko Jun-tae/The Korea Herald)
A delivery worker suddenly drives a motorcycle onto the sidewalk, honking at pedestrians to make way before heading to an apartment complex in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul.

Several more motorcyclists drive onto the sidewalk, which is already half-filled with parked motorcycles, all in a span of a few minutes. And a few feet away, several motorcyclists use the crosswalk to cross the street. Many drive without helmets, and one stares at his phone while speeding through.

This dangerous scene is commonplace in most areas of Seoul, where many people question whether motorcyclists have too much freedom to break laws and drive where they don’t belong.

"I don’t think it is reasonable to tolerate them (motorcyclists) ignoring laws as now," said Park Ji-sang, a 32-year-old resident of Gangnam-gu who says he constantly encounters motorcycles on sidewalks and in other pedestrian-only areas.

"They swerve into wherever they want, and I’ve seen some of them speeding through the crowds and honking their horns while cursing at pedestrians. They just take it for granted that they can break any laws they want."

Reckless and inconsiderate driving by motorcyclists has caused many injuries and deaths, data shows.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, 58 people died from traffic accidents involving motorcycles in the first nine months of this year, up 23.4 percent from the same period a year earlier, mainly because the motorcyclists neglected safety and ignored traffic signals.

Close to 60 percent of the deceased were delivery workers, and the number of deaths rose sharply this year as demand for deliveries surged in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Seoul alone, around 215,000 motorcycles are used for deliveries, and more than half are owned by small-business owners.

Motorcycles used in Seoul are usually cheaper models that produce excessive noise when cruising through neighborhoods. Some Seoul residents complain that these cheap motorcycles are too loud and disrupt their lives after work and on weekends.

"I started wearing earplugs since coming to Seoul, all because of these loud noises from motorcycles at night," said Kim Jin-ah, a 26-year-old nail salon worker living in a studio apartment in Jongno-gu, central Seoul.

Kim said she often used to wake up in the middle of the night as motorcycles sped through alleys to make deliveries, and this forced her to buy earplugs to ensure at least seven hours of sleep on work nights.

Delivery workers say they cannot help breaking traffic laws and making noise in neighborhoods if they want to sustain their livelihoods.

After a delivery worker was run over by a truck and died in Gangnam-gu in August, other delivery workers lamented the emphasis on fast delivery service, which they say forces them to them to speed through red lights and disregard safety to ensure that packages get to customers on time.

"Some customers curse at us and demand a refund if we arrive late, and some restaurants blame us for late arrivals even if they were the ones who were late preparing the orders," said a post in an online community for local delivery workers after the death was reported in August.

"Do you think safe driving while abiding by traffic laws is possible in this situation? No one has ever shouted at us for delivering something on time or accused us of breaking traffic laws (for being on time)."

Nevertheless, Seoul officials believe reckless motorcycle driving is a problem to be tackled, and since last month police have upped surveillance to monitor how well motorcyclists follow the traffic laws.

The Seoul Metropolitan Policy Agency announced last month that it was using unmarked vehicles and portable surveillance cameras near commercial areas during lunch hour and at night, while meeting with delivery service firms and agencies to come up with additional measures.

By law, motorcycles are classified as regular vehicles, meaning they can't be parked on sidewalks or in other pedestrian-only areas. Motorcyclists are required to drive on roads designated for motor vehicles and to abide by the same traffic laws as drivers of four-wheeled vehicles.

In a separate initiative, the Seoul city government is looking to transition the city to eco-friendly motorcycles for deliveries by 2025, which would also cut noise levels. It is working with the Ministry of Environment and related firms to supply 62,000 electric motorcycles in the city by the same year.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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