Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 12: The Safety Experience

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


This week’s subject is safety. Perhaps when people think about this country and its culture, they think about the places, the festivals, the food and things like that, and not necessarily the issue of safety, but safety was one of the first things I thought about in Korea.

Some of it is politics

On my third day in Korea I was walking to... well, I didn’t know where we were going actually – that’s what life is like sometimes as a foreigner living with a Korean family here – and the civil defence sirens went off.

Nobody had warned me about this, so it came as a complete surprise. I grew up about a mile away from the centre of the city I lived in, which would have been a Soviet nuclear target. It was still the Cold War and sometimes the sirens went off accidentally – so hearing them again brought back some bad memories and nervous feelings.

It doesn’t really bother me any more – the threat of war. I grew up with it I suppose, so I’ve lived with it before and now I’m living with it again. Maybe I’d feel differently if I lived in Seoul. You know, I think there’s a lot less crime here than where I’m from, so Korea has its advantages, but the political situation isn’t really one of them, and it’s not the only unsafe thing here.

Taxis and zero gravity

Another early experience that felt unsafe was the taxi ride from the station on my first day. In fact, all the other taxi rides I’ve taken felt unsafe as well.

It’s partly the speed, but it’s also the general chaos. When I learned to drive in England I was taught the importance of staying in your lane, not swerving around the road, giving other drivers space – you know, all the things that don’t seem to happen on the streets of Busan. I’ve driven a lot in my life, but so often here drivers seem to go through the narrowest of gaps at quite fast speeds, and I just find it amazing. I think Koreans must make great fighter pilots. Actually, I’ve felt like some of the taxi drivers I’ve ridden with must have been ex-fighter pilots. And certainly I’ve experienced zero gravity in the back of their cars. Despite that, I must have got used to it because I stopped wearing seatbelts.

Normally I wear seatbelts in British taxis. Partly because the taxi drivers where I’m from aren’t that great either, although it’s nothing compared to Busan, but partly because it’s actually the law in England – you have to wear seatbelts, even in he back of the car. But when I first came to Busan, of course I’d look for the seatbelt and the taxi drivers used to laugh at me. Usually I couldn’t find them either because they were hidden under the seat or they didn’t work. So I gave up, and I don’t think about putting a seatbelt on any more.

Two-speed buses

Sometimes I still wish they had seatbelts in buses though. Taxis speed up and slow down, but buses only seem to have two speeds – fast and stop – with nothing in-between. Why is it that buses have to accelerate towards a bus stop and then apply full brakes when they reach it? Honestly – I’m not joking when I say this – there have been morning I’ve woken up after a bus ride the day before, when my arm muscles have ached from gripping one of those hanging handles to try and stay on my feet.

I haven’t been injured yet, but last time I came back from Incheon Airport the bus driver braked so suddenly, that I fell over and my notebook computer casing broke as we both hit the floor. Welcome back to Korea. Seriously, I don’t think it creates a good image with tourists.

Getting run over on the pavement

In England, people aren’t allowed to ride motorbikes on the pavements – the sidewalks – so that was a real shock when I came to Korea. Actually, sometimes it makes me really angry – when my wife was heavily pregnant suddenly she was roughly pushed out of the way on the pavement and when I looked it was someone on a bike trying to get past her. I think riding motorbikes on sidewalks is the kind of behaviour you expect in a third-world country. I know it probably gets me my pizza faster, but I’d accept slower deliveries if I felt safer as a pedestrian. I think it would be better for the delivery riders as well, because I read that a lot of them have accidents.

I’ve seen the accident statistics for bike riders in Korea and they are frightening. But I’ve seen some people doing stupid things on bikes. Bikers use the road outside my apartment as a racetrack. Seeing three people on a small moped isn’t unusual, but twice I’ve seen four. One of those times it was a man weaving around the road with three small children on the bike with him – one clinging to his back, one clinging to his front, and one crouching down hear his feet. I’d been in Korea almost three years by then, so less and less shocks me – but that still did.


So walking isn’t always safe, and sometimes cars drive straight through crossings – I always wait for other people to start to cross first. And a couple of times a new building was being constructed on the street, and I looked up and saw men passing steel bars and other construction materials to each other. If they had dropped, it could have been straight onto someone’s head.

And speaking of unsafe buildings

We used to go to DVD bangs but then there was that fire a couple of years ago in Busan at the shooting club [several Japanese tourists died], and I started looking more carefully at some of the DVD bangs and there were bars across the windows. People probably smoke in them as well, so there’s no way out if something happens. I think a lot of places are like that.

I’m not sure apartments are always a lot better. For example, when we first moved into our one-room apartment I was surprised at the gas pipe hanging down from the ceiling very close to the gas hobs. Then one time our Internet failed and we went to the roof to see if there were any obvious problems with the wires. It turned out the roof was covered in all kinds of wiring – some in bad condition. A few days earlier, we were walking down the street nearby and there was a huge flash of light – the pole with all the wires next to our building had blown up – I mean that literally – there were steaming lumps of wreckage on the ground when we got there.

Flying into the Busan e-FM control room

I’m not sure that Korea is becoming a more safety conscious country either as each year passes. For example, Busan e-FM has just moved into newly-built studios, and the door to the control room has this four centimetre frame around it, including at the bottom, so it’s really easy to trip over if you forget it’s there. I’m waiting for the day I finally forget and enter the room head-first as I fall towards the floor.

Actually, when I first came to Korea my wife said to me that there used to be a kind of attitude here, that if something happens to you it’s probably your fault for not being more careful. So perhaps it’s just a cultural difference I have to get used to.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-01-12 @ ~19:30

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