During the holidays, many motorists who have drunk a bit too much will hand their keys over to a trusted sober friend, to drive them home. But in South Korea, some tipsy drivers always rely on complete strangers to get them home at night. For many drinkers there, hired replacement drivers are the best way to help them avoid tough penalties. DW’s reporter Jason Strother in Seoul went along for a ride to find out more.
Businessmen prefer not to drive if they have a bellyfull of beer so they order replacement drivers
55-year-old Kim Eun Young is waiting in an office in a neighbourhood loaded with bars. His job is to drive drunk people home in their own cars. Kim is a replacement driver. He works from eight in the evening until four in the morning, six days a week.
Kim says he sometimes get calls from doctors who are too tired after working overnight shifts. At other times, he has to drive home women who have had plastic surgery on their eye lids and cannot see well enough to drive.
At about 8:30pm, Kim gets a message that a potential client is several blocks away.
He finishes off his cup of instant coffee and heads out the door. Out on the street, he hails a cab to take him to the bar where the customer is waiting.
“You have to get there as quick as possible, within at least ten minutes,” he says. “If not, another driver might get there before you and you will lose your client. There's a lot of competition."
Essential for workers
Kim’s services are essential for many of Seoul’s workers. South Korea takes drunk driving very seriously. Motorists found with a blood alcohol level above 0.05 percent can be fined thousands of dollars, have their licenses suspended and can even be imprisoned for up to two years.
But despite these tough laws, the number of alcohol-related accidents and fatalities has risen in recent years. For most of the nation’s salary-men, alcohol is seen as a lubricant that helps get business contracts signed and brings co-workers closer together.
Jung JeKarl from the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation, said that 35 percent of businessmen drink excessively. “There’s a lot of social pressure for businessmen to drink alcohol together. Before, it was expected that you would drink until you black out. Today, you can refuse or only drink as much as you would like to.”
Too drunk to explain where they live
Kim arrives at the bar as a pack of businessmen in black suits stumble out the door. Two of them lead the driver to a parking garage. One hands Kim his keys and we get into a black Hyundai. Sometimes his clients are so drunk that they can’t explain how to get home:
"It doesn't happen often but sometimes,” he explains “I have to take my clients to the police station. Replacement drivers aren't allowed to go through their clients’ pockets or look through their cell phones, so they let the cops find out their address or their home phone number.”
The owner of the black car, Mr Chang, explains that drivers like Kim are a part of doing business in South Korea. He says companies here know that drinking with business colleagues makes it easier to do deals. So they encourage employees to drink and use replacement drivers. He says companies even cover the cost.
Need to tackle deeper social issue
But Jang JeKarl at the Alcohol Research Foundation, thinks replacement drivers do not help resolve the much deeper social issue. “Replacement drivers can help reduce the number of accidents but they do not help someone avoid developing a drinking problem. This service might encourage someone to drink more and more irresponsibly.”
Kim Eun Young, however, does not often think about the social ramifications of his service. For him, it’s just a job and a decent way to earn a living. He makes about two thousand dollars a month.
We pull up to a block of high-rise apartments. Kim hands the keys back to Mr. Chang and gets 25 dollars in return. Kim says he should have got 30. Soon after, Kim gets a message that another client is waiting. He jumps into a taxi and rides off, hoping he'll reach his customer before another driver does.