Markets in Everything: Replacement Drivers

The NYTimes reports on Korean replacement drivers – they drive drunks home in the drunk’s own car.   

Their work has become such an essential part of life in Seoul and other
major cities of South Korea that the national statistical office last
year began monitoring the price of replacement driver services as an
element in calculating the benchmark consumer price index. An estimated
100,000 replacement drivers handle 700,000 customers a day across the
country, the number increasing by 30 percent on Fridays, according to
the Korea Service Driver Society, a lobby for replacement drivers.

This seems like a great idea and it’s obviously a huge success in Korea. Why not in the United States?


Korea is significantly more dense than america is. The few places dense enough for this to work here, like New York, already have both abundant public transit and a flourishing taxi industry

This could also be viewed as a market for sobriety.

This has been going on for years in London. Someone comes on a foldable scooter and puts it in your boot so that he can get home easily himself. Typically you see ads above the urinals in the pub (I don't know if they try to cater to women at all). I forget the name of the service

The few places dense enough for this to work here, like New York, already have both abundant public transit and a flourishing taxi industry

Half the population of Korea lives in, or in the immediate vicinity of, Seoul, a city more populous than New York, but not much larger. Seoul's public transportation is -- I would submit -- vastly superior to New York's (my experience of New York's public transport being that it is unreliable and often kind of gross, although it does run 24-7 -- useful for drunks, I guess) although I think people rely on the bus-system in Seoul more than they do in NYC. Seoul also has plenty of cabs.

The difference is probably that the denizens of Seoul own cars in greater numbers than the denizens of New York. Or at least, that they use them more, just to go out. My impression is that New York's core was built up primarily in the 19th century, and has adapted poorly to 20th and 21st century automobile use, so many people who live in Manhattan don't bother to get cars, or don't use them just to get around the city. Seoul, on the other hand, was mostly built after 1950. It's got huge multi-lane roads all throughout the city (you can see them running everywhere if you look at Google Maps in satellite view, even if Google doesn't have the street map loaded), and people regularly use them to get to work, to go to the mall, and to go out drinking after work or whenever.

If you've gone out in a car, and you take a taxi or public transportation back, you'll have to go back and get it later (and if you've been drinking, you have to remember where you parked it). Easier to get someone to drive you back.

That would be my read.

Or, more succinctly: density. Korean cities (and London) have it; America does not. This service requires it.

I assume that Korea is wildly safer than most of the US, and that's probably a factor, too. You are, while definitionally impaired yourself, giving your car keys and car to a stranger you've never met before. I try not to be someone who freaks out about the potential for crime, but that's not something I'd do in New York City.

In Asia, getting drunk at a business event generates positive externalities because it signals sincerity. In America, getting drunk is an inconvenient truth drunks try to hide from other people. Hiring replacement drivers may well be a signaling event.

They have this in Louisville too. It's been there about 3 years.

These Koreans hitch a ride with strangers, late at night, at least 20 times a week! As one who has hitched some 10,000 miles back in my youth, color me quite amazed. Hitching must be dozens of times safer at those truck stops surrounding Seoul than anywhere in NY... for both the driver and the hitch-hiker.

Makes one wonder if NYC and Boston might soon cut their crime rates in half at least one more time. And imagine the social changes that would then evolve! Who wouldn't love to see women feeling they could walk at night as easily as men do?

Should Giuliani and his crime team get some major credit for the hundreds of billions of added value that accrued to homeowners in the NY area during their tenure?

Brian Moore,

I'm not saying you're wrong, but it seems from a couple of posters here that such services exist in the US somewhat, and I think unfortunately pretty much everywhee int he US you need a license to drive a taxi.

Question: do you need a taxi license to drive someone home for money in their own car?

One big difference between the US and Asia. Density of Lawyers. I think this would be a liability issue in the States.

What about insurance liability? Here, car insurance depends on who is regularly driving the car. Is it different in the US?


I'm just basing that guess on an article/event I read where people in a major city tried to charge each other to car pool, and they were told that they needed to get a taxi license to do so.

I don't know if the examples provided here are licensed, or if they've found a way around it.

"Why not in the United States?"

This service is offered in the United States, at least in Dallas, on a limited basis.

ben tillman:

i was not aware of this service in dallas? what area of dallas have you seen this offered? very curious and couldnt find through a google search. I've used them a few times in dallas, great service.

Where is Robert Putnam when we need him? Diversity doesn't come free. Indeed, as Putnam has demonstrated, it is a remarkably high tax on civil society. The presense / absense of drunk driving services providing only one example. Lots of things work better in low diversity, high trust societies versus the opposite.

Are their other factors involved. Sure. Freeways and 24x7 mass transit make a difference.

However, let's not ignore the elephant in the room.

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