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Party on, China! But get a driver

/ Source: Business Week

Business negotiations in China have traditionally been conducted over meals accompanied by plenty of alcohol, and the fiery sorghum-based spirit baijiu remains a staple at state banquets and family reunions. With the number of cars on Chinese roads tripling in the last five years, the government has launched a crackdown on drunk driving, imposing stiff prison sentences. Those convicted can get six months of jail time and fines plus lose their license for five years. Local dial-a-chauffeur services reap the benefits.

Beijing Ben Ao An Da Automobile Driving Service, which hires out chauffeurs, said it expects to boost sales by about 60 percent this year as a result of the tougher law, which went into effect on May 1. “Drinking with clients is part of my work,” says Jack Wang, a salesman for a Beijing telecom company, who uses substitute drivers about once a week. “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.”

Police caught 526,000 drunk drivers last year, up 68 percent from a year earlier. The number of traffic accidents in China rose 36 percent, to 3.9 million in 2010, resulting in one death every nine minutes, according to the Public Security Ministry. More than half the road fatalities were caused by inebriated motorists, according to the Ministry.

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China implemented its first road safety traffic law in 2004, mandating helmets for motorcyclists and seat belts for passengers in the front seat. 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.

Gao Xiaosong, a judge on the television contest China’s Got Talent, is the most high-profile motorist to be punished under the new law. The musician was sentenced in May to six months in prison and fined after authorities said he was involved in a four-car pileup that injured four people in the Chinese capital. Police said he was found to have three times the legal limit for alcohol.

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Ji “Yi” Feng, owner of Beijing Ruiyu Xingchen Driving Service, says he’s had to turn away some bookings since the tougher rules took effect and boosted demand for his pool of 30 drivers. Hiring on-demand chauffeurs in Beijing also became more popular in April when parking charges were doubled to 10 yuan per hour as part of measures to curb traffic in the central city. Car owners may pay more to leave their vehicles and take a cab home than if they used a stand-in driver, Ji says.

Rates start from 100 yuan after 11 p.m. for Ben Ao An Da’s service, plus extra fees based on distance and waiting time. Customers pay 3,000 yuan to set up a prepaid account. Charges for individual trips, which must be booked 40 minutes before pickup, are then deducted as used. The company, with 160 drivers, has signed up outfits including China Everbright Bank, China Minsheng Banking, and the People’s Insurance Co. (Group) of China to provide services to their clients, says founder He Jin. “Some of our customers are so drunk they can’t even stand,” he explains. “They shouldn’t get behind the wheel.”

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The bottom line: A crackdown on drunk driving has been a boon for chauffeur services in China, where more than half of road fatalities involve alcohol.