A car with an electronic sign on its roof saying "designated driver service" waits for customers on Beijing's Gongti Xilu, which is lined with bars and nightclubs. Xue Jun / for China Daily
A year after drunken driving became punishable as a crime, drivers in China have become more serious about road safety, resulting in the rapidly developing yet unregulated designated driver business.
"We can receive 300 orders every day on average, nearly double the figure for the same period last year," said Liu Jing, a manager of Changyinwuyou, a company that provides designated driver service in Beijing.
As many as 500 people may call on a busy day, but the company can only handle fewer than 300 orders daily, Liu said. Designated driver services charge by distance, she added.
"Strict monitoring and regulations carried out in recent years contributed to the increase in people's awareness of the danger posed by drunken driving or driving under the influence of alcohol," said Liu.
"Unlike several years ago when we started our business, now many customers would seek designated drivers even if they have just had a little amount of wine," Liu said. "Those who are really drunk only account for less than 5 percent of our total customers."
China amended its Criminal Law on May 1 last year, stipulating that all drunken driving constitutes a criminal offense, regardless of whether road accidents or other serious consequences occur.
Under the new law, drivers caught drunken driving will have their licenses revoked and could face a prison term of one to six months.
Official figures show a fall in the number of drunken driving cases in China.
According to the Ministry of Public Security's Traffic Management Bureau, from May 1 last year to April 20, traffic police handled 354,000 cases of driving under the influence of alcohol nationwide, down by 41.7 percent compared with the same period in the previous year. Drunken driving cases totaled 54,000, registering a 44.1 percent drop.
Instead, the designated driver business is booming in big cities.
"There are about 50 companies registered that provide designated driver service in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province), and most of these were set up in the past year," said Chen Xu, vice-president of Chengdu Designated Driver Service Association.
"We received about 80 orders to chauffeur drunken passengers every day in the first four months of this year, an increase of more than 40 percent compared with the same period last year," said Wang Wei, manager of Beijing Luantai, which provides driver training, car rental and designated driving services.
Many hotels and entertainment venues have also cooperated with companies that provide designated driver service for the convenience of customers who consume alcohol.
"At least seven or eight of our customers ask us to call the designated driver company to arrange drivers for them every night," said Wang Jianbin, service director of a branch of Partyworld in Beijing's Chaoyang district.
"Most of our customers come in groups, and sometimes they designate someone to be the driver, who does not drink. This was rarely seen a few years ago."
Despite the surge in companies that provide designated driver services in Chengdu, the business volume registered remains roughly the same as last year, said Chen at Chengdu Designated Driver Service Association.
"Many of the increased business went to the hundreds of unregistered companies that also provide designated driver service in the city," he said.
Designated driver service is a new sector in China and laws and regulations are absent, Chen said. "There is no government department in charge of the service."
Liu Jing, the manager of Changyinwuyou in Beijing, holds a similar opinion.
"Many problems still exist in the sector," said Liu. "For example, we cannot buy insurance for our designated drivers as there is no such type of insurance in China. So things become thorny, if a car accident happens."
Wang Jinglin, a sales manager in Beijing, said he drinks a lot due to work but has never asked a designated driver to drive him home.
"I am worried about safety and don't want to let a stranger drive me home when I'm drunk," he said. "I know most companies providing such services don't hold a certificate, so what can I do in case of an accident?"
Instead, he would ask one of his friends to drive his car for him when he is drunk, he said.
"The designated driver sector is a promising one in China," Liu said. "We hope laws and regulations will come as soon as possible to help it develop in a healthy way."