China is counting on the threat of incarceration to keep drunken drivers off the roads. Dial-a-chauffeur services are reaping the benefits.
Beijing Ben Ao An Da Automobile Driving Service Co., which hires out stand-in chauffeurs, expects to boost sales by about 60 percent this year after the government amended the law on May 1 to hand out prison sentences for drunken driving. Demand is coming from car owners like Jack Wang, who uses substitute drivers about once a week after business dinners.
“Drinking with clients is part of my work,” said Wang, 36, a salesman for a telecommunications company in Beijing. “A lot of business has to be done over dinner and alcohol, but no one I know is willing to take the chance now to drive after drinks.”
China, which overtook the U.S. in auto sales in 2009, is cracking down on drunken driving as vehicle ownership tripled in the last five years. The number of traffic accidents rose 36 percent to 3.9 million cases in 2010, resulting in one death every nine minutes, according to the Ministry of Public Security.
Last year, police caught 526,000 drunk drivers, a 68 percent increase from a year earlier. More than half of the road fatalities in China were caused by inebriated motorists, according to the ministry.
China may have 150 million vehicles on its roads by 2015, 65 percent more than last year, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The market for alcohol is estimated to expand 39 percent to 53 million liters in the same period, according to London-based researcher Euromonitor International Plc.
BYD, Ford, GM
BYD Co., the Chinese automaker part-owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and Ford Motor Co. said they haven’t seen any impact of the tougher rules on car sales. General Motors Co., the biggest overseas automaker in the country, said it supports programs that raise safety awareness.
China implemented its first road safety traffic law in May 2004, making it mandatory for motorcyclists to use helmets and drivers and front-seat passengers to use seatbelts.
With the amendment this year, those caught operating a vehicle with blood-alcohol content exceeding 80 milligrams per 100 milliliters -- equivalent to three beers -- face prison terms of up to six months and a five-year driving ban. Previously, they may be detained for up to 15 days and have their licenses impounded for three to six months.
The harsher punishments have come in part after several drink-driving cases sparked public outrage.
In May 2010, Chen Jia, 31, fled the scene after running a red light and crashing his black Infiniti sedan into a Fiat and a bus. The collision killed a 35-year-old man and his six-year-old daughter and injured another two.
Chen, a dancer, admitted he was drunk and was sentenced to life in prison. He also agreed to pay 3.66 million yuan ($566,134) in compensation to the family of the victims.
Gao Xiaosong, 42, a judge on the popular “China’s Got Talent” television contest, became the most high-profile motorist to be punished under the new law.
The musician was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 4,000 yuan after causing a four-car pile-up in the Chinese capital that injured four people. He was found to have three times the legal limit for alcohol.
Business negotiations in China are often conducted over meals and alcohol, and “baijiu,” the fiery sorghum-based spirit is served at occasions from state banquets to family reunions.
“Drinking is an inseparable part of social activities in China and can be traced back into ancient history,” said Li Fangxiao, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law. “Administrative measures have proved to be ineffective in curbing drink driving. Criminalizing it is the ultimate measure.”
Ji Yifeng, the owner of Beijing Ruiyu Xingchen Driving Service Corp., said he’s had to turn away some bookings since the tougher rules came into effect and boosted demand for his pool of 30 drivers.
Traffic police manned roadblocks in Beijing and Shanghai in the weeks after the tougher penalties were implemented and administered breathalyzer tests for selected drivers.
The number of motorists caught driving after consuming alcohol fell 81 percent in May to 1,024, of whom 89 were found to be legally drunk, according to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.
Hiring substitute drivers in the Chinese capital also became more popular after Beijing doubled parking charges to 10 yuan per hour since April 1 as part of measures to curb traffic in the central areas. Car owners may pay more to leave their vehicles and take a cab home than if they used a stand-in driver, Ji said.
Charges start from 100 yuan after 11 p.m. at Ben Ao An Da Automobile Driving Service, with additional fees based on distance and waiting time. Customers must pre-pay 3,000 yuan, from which the charges will be deducted and bookings must be made 40 minutes before pickup.
The company has a pool of 160 drivers and has signed up companies including China Everbright Bank Co., China Minsheng Banking Corp. and the People’s Insurance Co. (Group) of China to provide services to their clients, according to founder He Jin.
“People know there’s too much at stake now if they drive after drinking,” said He, 51, who sold insurance before setting up the business in 2003. “Some of our customers are so drunk they can’t even stand. They shouldn’t get behind the wheel.”