I love driving through the Gyeongbu Highway, cruising the five or so hours from Seoul down to Busan. There are plenty of rest stops, gas stations and stretches of rice fields encased by the mountains. At this time of the year, the rice fields are emerald green, with spots of yellow beginning to appear, a few months shy of harvest. But what I love the most are the morbid road signs: warning signs against drowsy driving.
It’s almost like black comedy; some signs are so blatantly grim that I wonder if the advertisers were cracking up during the production process. My favorite ever was probably the following:
“You sleep once, you sleep for eternity.”
Drowsy driving is a major issue, especially during the summer season. According to Korea Road Traffic Authority (KoRoad), between 2013 and 2015, July and August saw the most number of car accidents from sleepy driving. In general, drowsiness is the leading cause of car accidents on the highway; one in five accidents are caused by sleepy drivers, says KoRoad.
Government awareness of this critical issue is apparent when you drive on the Korean highways. There are hundreds of banners on the 416-km-long Gyeongbu Highway: large and small, hung up on the side of the road, overhead walkways, tunnel entrances, and even the side of the mountains.
I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures of the funniest ones (okay, my mom took most of them while I drove):
1. Nod Off / Off To The Underworld
Thanks for the kind reminder.
2. One Second, The Moment You Have With Life
Ominous and philosophical.
3. Why Drowse? Why Not Sleep A Little (My Friend)
This reminder feels like it’s from an old friend, so I added the parenthesis. Another friendly one, which I couldn’t take a picture of, said: “In the springtime open your windows~ Let your drowsiness fly out the window~”
4. Drowsiness Is A Disease! Prevention Is Resting!
This one sounds slightly dogmatic and desperate.
5. You Drowse, You Die
No beating around the bushes with this one. I love the straightforward ones. Another memorable mention: “The final destination of drowsy driving is death.” No sugarcoating the truth, just straight-up, unavoidable death.
These morbid signs are there for good reason; they’re part of an ongoing, massive government campaign encouraging drivers to take a chill pill.
Let’s be serious though. Despite the good intentions, I wonder how much they really help the bus and truck drivers who are on the road to make money. How effective are these signs, in tackling the real problem why drivers can’t afford to sleep?
Just last month, a bus driver fell asleep at the wheel, crashing into a white sedan and ultimately killing two people, and injuring sixteen. According to the national union for transport workers, which includes drivers in South Korea’s 40,000+ buses, many transport workers must work around 18 hours a day. The union argued that the fatigue and drowsiness behind fatal bus accidents are caused by these harsh working conditions.
If you’re a bus driver going from Seoul to Busan on the Gyeongbu, trying to make it in time for your 50-or-so customers, you don’t have the luxury to take heed of all those warning signs. No warning sign, no matter how eye-openingly funny or morbid, can be enough to change that reality.
All images, unless otherwise stated, were taken by Haeryun Kang for Korea Exposé. And her mother, Kim Hyung-sook.
Cover image: Drowsy driving is a problem all over the world. (Source: Air Force Medical Service)