Substitute drivers in Okinawa have started giving U.S. service members a ride home inside bases to reduce incidences of drunken driving in a first in Japan.

Katsuyoshi Arasaki stands besides a car from his designated driver service company in the city of Okinawa on Jan. 26

The Okinawa prefectural branch of Japan’s substitute driver service association concluded an exclusive contract to start the operation with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which provides restaurant and other services on U.S. bases.

The organization, known as AAFES, wants to expand the service in other prefectures that host U.S. bases, with an eye to starting a substitute driver service in Kanagawa Prefecture as well, according to the prefectural branch.

Of the 15 member companies in the Japan Driving Service Association’s prefectural branch, around 30 cars from six member operators began offering service from Feb. 1 to drive service members back to any U.S. base within the prefecture.

The drivers have applied to obtain identification cards to enter U.S. bases. The number of cars will be increased to some 70 by the end of February as the remaining nine member operators plan to join the service, according to the branch.

The contract will be renewed every five years and the branch will consider further increasing the number of cars for the service.

To start the new service, the branch set up two telephone lines at its own expense to accommodate service members. Using the dedicated phone lines, call operators will receive requests in English from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. and dispatch cars via radio used by the branch.

The phone numbers for the service have been provided to U.S. bases through AAFES, which consulted with the branch last October to reduce drunken driving, the branch said.

The fare for the service is priced uniformly by member operators at ¥1,600 for up to 2 km, with ¥200 added for every kilometer thereafter.

The operators will ask customers to pay in yen, but will check exchange rates so they can accept payment in dollars, the branch said. The branch also plans to introduce a system enabling credit card transactions and install closed-circuit TV cameras inside the cars in the future.

The revenue will be reported to the U.S. military every month and operators will pay a fixed fee to enter bases in the same way as taxis do, the branch said.

The six operators that started offering the service received an orientation program at Kadena Air Base in January and learned traffic rules unique to bases, which set a stricter speed limit due to the lack of traffic lights.

“Okinawa has the largest number of substitute driver operators in Japan, but the number of firms joining the association is low,” said Katsuyoshi Arasaki, 56, who heads the branch.

“We’d like to take this opportunity to increase the number of member firms and ensure proper service” such as by preventing operations by unauthorized drivers, Arasaki said.


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