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[Opinion] Revision of Traffic Accident Law

Posted February. 28, 2009 04:43,   


The Constitutional Court has ruled that a fully insured driver can be prosecuted for an accident causing serious injury to victims. Previously, such a driver was responsible only in the case of hit-and-run, speeding or driving under the influence of alcohol.

In 1997, the court said the definition of a crime and the corresponding punishment were up to lawmakers, and that the traffic law served the legislative purpose of preventing the number of convictions from soaring and quickly resolving legal disputes. Reversing its decision made 12 years ago, the court this time said that despite the need to guarantee a victim’s right to make statements in court, the unconditional immunity for a driver violates the constitutional requirement to minimize encroachment on basic rights. The latest ruling was affected by the fact that most drivers are now covered by general liability insurance and that most drivers who cause accidents do not even appear before the victims, leaving all the damage-related tasks to insurers.

The latest ruling could help advance Korea’s traffic culture by creating an environment that requires drivers to be more careful about safe driving. The traffic fatality rate in Korea is 3.2 people per 10,000 car accidents, more than 50 percent higher than the average for member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Though Korea’s auto insurance premiums are higher than those of other advanced economies, the rate of car accidents will not fall easily. Significant fears have arisen, however, over the potential side effects of the ruling. The number of people convicted for accidents could rise significantly. In addition, the settlement amount could rise sharply due to excessive demands from victims, who could take advantage of the stipulation that exempts drivers from criminal charges when an agreement is reached between offender and victim.

The definition of serious injury that is emerging as a new standard for criminal charges in car accidents is unclear. Article 258 of the Criminal Law defines a serious injury as a “life hazard caused by bodily injury or that leads to disability or disease that is incurable or hard to cure.” More often than not, however, serious injuries incurred in car accidents are confirmed belatedly or the age or bodily conditions of the victims play a part. Action is urgent to address the chaos and concerns that might arise due to the Constitutional Court’s decision.

Editorial Writer Gwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)