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China's drunk driving laws spawn professional designated driver industry

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On May 1 a new national law prohibiting smoking in public places such as restaurants and bars went into effect, with no noticeable attempt at enforcement by Kunming authorities to date. On the same day, two new laws aimed at discouraging drunk driving were also enacted, with drunk driving checkpoints popping up throughout the city.

As expected, the implementation of harsher penalties for driving drunk - plus a real attempt at enforcement - has caused potential drunk drivers in Kunming to think twice before getting behind the wheel. The new rules have also boosted a relatively new line of work in Kunming: the professional designated driver.

Beginning this month, all drunk driving activity is now considered a criminal offense under Chinese law. Previously, drunk driving was only a criminal offense if the driver caused a serious traffic accident.

Another law enacted this month mandates that the license of any individual caught driving while drunk will be automatically revoked, rather than merely suspended as before.

In Kunming the new rules have had the unintended consequence of nurturing the new industry of professional designated driving.

Kunming resident and former taxi driver Qiu Dong (邱冬), profiled in a Kunming Daily report, said that he got the idea for offering professional designated driver services one cold night in early 2010.

Qiu told Kunming Daily that he was resting in his taxi outside of Green Lake Hotel when a drunken businessman emerged from the hotel. The man yelled to Qiu, asking if he would be willing to drive him home to Jiaoling Lu in his own car for 100 yuan.

Qiu agreed and drove the man home. After receiving his payment, he took a taxi back to Green Lake Hotel for 15 yuan, making a profit of 85 yuan in less than 30 minutes – much better margins than taxi driving. And so, a business was born.

The former taxi driver Qiu has since started his own designated driver company, Dongdong Designated Driver Services (东东代驾服务部), one of the few designated driving companies in town.

Qiu and other members of Kunming's inchoate designated driving industry told Kunming Daily that demand for their services has risen so sharply since implementation of the new laws that they're on the verge of a driver shortage. It is estimated that there are at least 100 professional designated drivers in Kunming at present.

Clients tend to be businessmen who have to get hammered at business dinners and evening meetings, but also include people who get smashed at social events such as weddings, the report said.

Current rates for designated driving services are 80 yuan within the first ring road, 90 yuan within the second ring road and 100 yuan within the third ring road. An additional 10 percent surcharge is added after 10pm.

Given the importance of drinking in Chinese business and society and the legal ramifications of getting caught driving drunk, Qiu and others offering designated driving services in Kunming may be positioned for large profits in the coming years.

But as the young industry no doubt knows, it is very plausible that as the market grows, the local or even national government may step in to regulate it, in which case all bets are off.

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Most major cities have this service - example Tokyo (but at SIGNIFICANTLY higher fees - roughly USD 200-300). The drivers (in other countries) must be licensed (obviously), insured, and bonded in case of any accident with your vehicle - hence the high fees - but beats a DUI and the resulting insurance spike (not to mention jail time) all the time..

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