Driven to drink
South Korea must be a drinkers' paradise. It is an essential part of the work culture. At the end of the day, colleagues frequently go out for dinner together, which is usually accompanied, or followed, by a drinking binge.
It is not uncommon to find male co-workers indulging until the small hours; never mind the wife and children awaiting their return. Indeed, men seem to think that after-work drinking is necessary to relieve the stresses of the day.
The problem is, however, how they get home after such sessions. Many people drive to work, as for most, public transport is still inconvenient. As a result, many men drive home after drinking too much. In recent years, drink driving has become a major social issue. Despite heavy punishments, including jail terms for the worst offenders, people still continue to drive under the influence. Traffic accidents where drink was a factor have soared.
With this in mind, entrepreneurs have capitalised on the phenomenon in recent years, with hired drivers in great demand. Those in Seoul who have drunk too much to drive can ring a number and a driver will turn up, usually within 10 minutes, to take the wheel and whisk the person home safely, before grabbing a cab on to the next job.
When the business first got going about five years ago, fares were quite high - about US$30 for driving within Seoul itself and US$50 within the metropolitan area. But the protracted economic downturn hit the business just like most others, driving down fares. Now, not only are there fewer clients, there are also more drivers for hire; many middle-aged people have taken up the work after being laid off.
Currently, there are 1,000 such businesses in Seoul alone, employing nearly 20,000 drivers. Nationwide, there are about 8,000 hired-driver businesses. As a result, the average fares have nearly halved in the past three years, often making the service cheaper than getting a taxi after midnight, when surcharges are imposed.
With these reduced fares, business was booming during the New Year holidays. More people were able to enjoy late-night drinking sessions without having to worry about driving home. This appears to be a win-win situation, with drinkers, drivers and the authorities all seeing the benefits of the service. But there are a couple of catches. Many of these hired drivers do not have proper insurance. As the business expands rapidly, there is an increasing shortage of skilled, experienced and insured drivers. Then there is the fact that new drivers often get lost. And with their drunk client sleeping like a baby in the back, they have little chance of getting any sense out of him.