I recently read in the news that a total of 126 people died (2009-2012) as a result of bicycle-related traffic accidents just in Seoul, Korea. There were almost 12,000 bicycle-related accidents in that period. Indeed, the number of cyclists in Korea has steadily increased in the last few years. There is even a slang term, “자출족” which refers to people who commute to and from work by bicycle. “자출족” stands for “자전거로 출퇴근하는 사람들.”
I. Let’s Define “Bicycle” (자전거)
In Korea, there are two special laws that regulate bicycles and bicycle use. One is the Road Traffic Act (도로교통법), and the other is the Promotion of the Use of Bicycles Act (자전거이용활성화에관한법률). According to the latter, a “bicycle” (자전거) is defined as:
1) “a vehicle with two or more wheels” +
2) “and a driving device operated by human-powered pedals or hand pedals, a steering system, and a brake system” +
3) “which is of a size and structure as specified the Ministry of Security and Public Administration Ordinance.”
At any rate, the following is more important. That according to Article 2(17)(a) of the Road Traffic Act, “bicycles” are classified as “motor vehicles” (차). Just like cars, trucks, and motorcycles! Now, this essentially means that many of the traffic laws/regulations that apply to cars equally apply to bicycles (once on the road).
What about electric bicycles? In Korea, e-bicycles are currently classified as either: 1) “motorcycles” (원동기장치자전거), or 2) “a two-wheeled vehicle” (이륜자동차). It depends on their “rated output” (정격 출력). If lower than 0.59 kilowatts, the former. If 0.59 or higher, the latter. At any rate, e-bicycles are not “bicycles,” and they cannot be ridden on “bicycles-only roads” (자전거전용도로). What’s more, an appropriate licence must first be obtained before operating an e-bicycle.
Important Note (July 2014): It was recently reported that e-bicycles will soon be included under the definition of “bicycles.” But, most likely limited to e-bicycles with a top speed of 25-30 km/h and weighing no more than 40 kg.
II. Ground Rules
When a bicycle is ridden on the road, it must stay/travel on the far right (우측 가장자리) of the road. But ideally, a bicycle should be ridden on a “bicycles-only road.” Like in the above photo I took. The red narrow path between the sidewalk and the road (for cars) is a “bicycles-only road.”
A bicycle may be ridden on the road, on a bicycles-only road, or on a pedestrian/bicycle road. A bicycle may not be ridden on the sidewalk. (Note: There is an exception for children, seniors and people with disability. Also an exception is sidewalks with separate bicycle paths.)
A bicycle may not be ridden while using a crosswalk. The cyclist must get off and drag his/her bicycle across (like a pedestrian). A bicycle (when being ridden) is considered a “motor vehicle.” So, it would be like driving one’s car across (the crosswalk).
III. Case Studies
1. Crosswalks and Helmets
Situation: It’s early Monday morning. Chris is returning home from his (daily) morning bicycle ride. He decides to cross a crosswalk while riding his bicycle. Btw, he is also not wearing a helmet. It’s green light for pedestrians (to cross). He starts crossing (while riding his bicycle). Suddenly, a car unlawfully hits him (i.e., the driver ran a red light). Chris is badly injured as a result. Will Chris be able to sue the driver? Assume this is all taking place in Korea.
Answer: In a very similar tort case to this one, the court held for the plaintiff (Chris). This means, yes, Chris can sue the driver because the driver was at fault. The driver neglected the traffic signal. (It was red light against the driver.) But, the court also found the plaintiff 20% responsible (i.e., comparative fault) for: 1) riding the bicycle across + 2) not wearing a helmet. In the case, that 20% amounted to roughly KRW 50,000,000 (USD 48,000).
Summary: According to Article 13.2 of the Road Traffic Act, a cyclist must get off and drag his/her bicycle when crossing a crosswalk. Meanwhile, there is no law that says a cyclist is obligated to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. (Note: Article 50 of the Road Traffic Act does, however, specify accompanying children must wear protective gear.) But, as you can see, not wearing a helmet could (probably will) render the cyclist more responsible (in court) for his/her injuries suffered. Even though he/she was the victim.
2. Maintaining a Safe Distance / Signaling
Situation: It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in May. Veteran cyclists Vera and Vince (who do not know each other) happen to be cycling on the road, very close to each other. They are each traveling at around 30 km/p. Vera is in front and Vince is behind tailgating. Even though Vince is tailgating, he thinks it’s okay/safe because his path slightly to the left of Vera’s path. But, Vera suddenly decides to move to the left (because she has a left turn coming up soon). Vera does not signal in any way, and Vince suddenly crashes into Vera. They are both badly injured. Vince sues Vera. Can he win? If so, to what extent? Assume this is all taking place in Korea.
Answer: In a very similar tort case to this one, the Court held only partially for the plaintiff (i.e., comparative fault). For such an accident, the Court found Vince 80% responsible, and Vera (only) 20% responsible. Vince was responsible for his failure to maintain a safe distance (He should not have been tailgating Vera). But, Vera was also somewhat at fault. She should have signalled (in some manner) as she was moving to the left.
Summary: According to Article 19 of the Road Traffic Act, all motor vehicles are required to maintain a safe distance when traveling behind another motor vehicle. This includes bicycles. And according to Article 38 of the Road Traffic Act, the driver of a motor vehicle must always convey a signal (using indicators, lights, hands, etc.) when making turns or changing lanes. In the Court’s view, Vera should have (at least) made appropriate hand signals for anyone behind (e.g., using her left arm/hand). As you can see, any failure to abide by the relevant traffic laws/regulations will be reflected in determining the degree of fault in a tort case.
3. Criminal Liability
Situation 1: Mr. Park is riding his bicycle to work. He is on the road and running late. At a crossroad, he sees that the red light is against him, but he nevertheless proceeds. Mr. Park crashes into a pizza delivery moped that was making a turn lawfully. Mr. Park is more badly injured than the moped driver. This is all taking place in Korea.
Situation 2: Ms. Kim is riding her bicycle on the sidewalk. In an attempt to go around an oncoming pedestrian, she makes an abrupt turn. She hits another cyclist in the process. That cyclist is badly injured as a result. Unfortunately, that cyclist dies (from the injuries) a few weeks later. This is all taking place in Korea.
Situation 3: Mr. Lee is riding his bicycle on the road. All of a sudden, Mr. Lee realizes that he is on the wrong side of the road. He was actually riding his bicycle on the opposite side of the road! Upon this realization, he quickly decides to move to the other (correct) side of the road. Alas, on the way, he hits another cyclist. That cyclist is badly injured and requires 4 weeks of medical treatment. This is all taking place in Korea.
Situation 1: Mr. Park was indicted and found guilty. He was fined KRW 500,000 (벌금). “벌금” is a criminal fine.
Situation 2: Ms. Kim was indicted and found guilty. She faced imprisonment w/o labor (금고).
Situation 3: Mr. Lee was indicted and found guilty. He was fined KRW 500,000 (벌금).
These crimes would all end up on the cyclists’ criminal records. As you can see, a negligent+uninformed cyclist can easily/suddenly end up a criminal.
IV. In a Nutshell
1. Rules Applying Both to Cars and Bicycles
a) Obligation to abide by traffic signals/signs.
b) Obligation to drive on the right side of the road (not in the opposite direction).
c) Obligation to maintain a safe distance (from behind).
d) Obligation to refrain from overtaking in crossroads or in tunnels.
e) Obligation to protect pedestrians who are crossing a crosswalk.
f) Obligation to use appropriate lights while driving/cycling at night and to use signals when making turns or changing lanes.
2. Rules Applying Only to Bicycles
a) To stay on the far right side when riding a bicycle on the road.
b) To get off and drag one’s bicycle when crossing a crosswalk.
c) To refrain from riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
d) To refrain from operating a bicycle while being drunk, etc.
e) Overtaking through the “right side” is allowed.
f) Thanks to a great email question, I am able to add the following info: Bicycles and motorcycles are not allowed to be ridden on “exclusive road for motor vehicles” (자동차전용도로). Many (but not all) roads going through tunnels are such roads. All expressways (aka highways) are automatically “exclusive road for motor vehicles.” Other roads (like freeways) can also be designated “exclusive road for motor vehicles.” You really have to pay close attention because such roads often start/end abruptly.
3. Rules That Do Not Apply to Bicycles
a) Regular speed limits do not apply to bicycles.
b) Driving w/o a license do not apply to bicycles.
c) Drunk driving (forbidden, but no specific punishment for a cyclist is currently outlined).
d) The ban on the use of cell phones (while cycling) do not apply to bicycles.
V. (Bicycle) Traffic Signs
1. Bicycles-Only Road
2. Road for Both Bicycles/Pedestrians
3. Road for Both Bicycles/Pedestrians (with separate lanes)
4. Bicycle Parking Allowed
5. Bicycle Crossing (bicycle must be ridden across)
6. Bicycles Not Allowed (may not be ridden)
VI. Using the Subway
In Seoul, a cyclist may board the subway with his/her bicycle. But, only on weekends/holidays. (Note: Some lines do allow on weekdays as long as it is not rush hour. On some lines, such as Line #9, bicycles are never allowed.) Bicycles may only be boarded on the first or last cars (of the train).
VII. Locks and Insurance
I recently ran across an interesting news report on KBS dealing with bicycle locks (below video clip). The report said there have been many bicycle thefts of late partly because most bicycle locks can easily be broken. This is a problem (in Korea) as many bicycle owners who live in apartments and choose to leave/lock their bicycles in the common area (e.g., stairway, hallway). The report suggests owners buy sturdier, joint or U-shaped locks. They are not that more expensive than (weak) cable locks. The only drawback is their weight (i.e., not very portable). Also, be sure to lock your bicycle on one of “main” parts of your bicycle (e.g., not on a wheel). Some like to steal w/o the seat or wheels.
Meanwhile, there are a few bicycle insurance policies available in Korea. Some cities, such as Andong, have recently used city budget to provide a policy for its citizen cyclists. If your city does not currently provide such a policy, you might want to try getting private insurance. The problem is that most policies currently available only cover personal injuries to the cyclist him/herself. Very few cover injuries (to others) or bicycle theft. This has been pointed out as a problem in the news. You can type “자전거보험” on a Korean search engine to find bicycle insurance policies.
Please remember to always wear a helmet. Of the 126 deaths I mentioned in the beginning of this post, (they say) around 90% were not wearing helmets. Remember that a bicycle is a “motor vehicle” on the road. So, most of the traffic rules equally apply. Use common sense, and bike “defensively.” This means, not assuming other cyclists will always be “reasonably prudent.” You might win in court, but the aim is to not end up there (at all).
Added: If you ride bicycles (in Korea) regularly, please try to install a bicycle black box. It’s a camera (installed on the bicycle or helmet) which records everything in the cyclist’s path. They can cost up to KRW 300,000. Just type in “자전거 블랙박스” on Naver or Daum. There is currently little or no enforcement of bicycle/traffic laws here in Korea, and a black box might be your only way to prove you were not at fault. Please refer to the two news reports below:
Thanks for reading! I will try to update if necessary.
– My recent post: “Cyclists vs. Pedestrians: Cyclist’s Liability under Korean Law”
– My other recent post: “Drivers vs. Cyclists: Driver’s Liability under Korean Law”
Also Added: Found a great blog post about bicycle law in Korea here.