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Speed over safety? China's food delivery industry warned over accidents

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) - A scooter driver in a bright blue jacket on a food delivery run dashes across a busy intersection slick with rain, hits a turning car and is hurled along the tarmac in a video posted by Chinese police warning that couriers should slow down.

China's home delivery boom, powered by an estimated three million couriers, most of them riding quiet electric scooters or boxy three-wheelers, has triggered a surge in road accidents, prompting warnings from police and complaints from drivers who say they feel pressure to put speed before safety.

"Accidents happen all the time at rush hour. I have a friend who was hit by a car and could not work for two months," said a food courier in Beijing surnamed Zhang, declining to give his full name.

The number of users of China's online food delivery market, dominated by services backed by technology giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd, surged 41.6 percent to 300 million in the first half of 2017, according to a report by the state-controlled China Internet Network Information Center.

After 76 injuries and deaths involving food delivery drivers in Shanghai were recorded in the first half of 2017 alone, police called in China's largest food delivery companies in late August to warn them to improve safety standards.

Drivers from China's two largest food delivery companies, Meituan-Dianping and Ele.me, were responsible for about a quarter of all the incidents, the Shanghai police said.

The news sparked a countrywide reaction as city police and state media came out to chastise the industry for accidents.

Police in the eastern city of Nanjing met with food delivery companies on Sept 20 after couriers were involved in more than 3,000 accidents in the first half of 2017, over 90 percent of which were deemed their fault, state media reported.

The official Legal Daily urged authorities to "mobilise the masses" to use phone cameras to catch offenders and punish their employers, identified by distinctively colored uniforms.

A spokesman for Meituan, whose drivers wear a fluorescent yellow, said that the company has safety training for drivers and conducted more than 300 driver training courses in July. He said there was a 13.6 percent drop in traffic incidents in the following month.

A spokeswoman for Ele.me said it tells drivers that "safety is first, speed is second" and that the company recently launched a system to track traffic violations by drivers, as well as offering rewards to onlookers who report incidents.

NEED FOR SPEED

China's drivers are rarely mugged or shot - a risk facing their counterparts in parts of the United States and some other countries - but they often suffer injuries on the country's hectic city roads.

While drivers typically take the blame for accidents, labor activists and numerous drivers said incentives make speed a necessity.

The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which tracks labor action in China, said couriers are increasingly airing their grievances, staging protests and strikes to demand better wages and accident insurance.

Drivers can face fines for late deliveries or poor customer ratings, the drivers said, adding that companies do not always provide insurance or coverage for accidents. Companies say drivers are covered by public and third party liability insurance.

Food delivery drivers told Reuters that they are expected to do up to 40 deliveries in one 10-to-12-hour shift, usually with a time limit of under half an hour per delivery. Being on time and getting good reviews from customers can mean an extra 5 yuan (0.75 U.S. cents) or so per delivery.

Couriers are also usually not hired directly by the companies that design the ordering software. Instead, they work freelance or for third party companies, leaving them without direct contracts with the platform operators.

In August, dozens of Meituan drivers staged a strike in the southern city of Yixing to complain about pay and injury compensation, showing off their scab-covered legs and using hand-written equations to show how a build up of fines for late deliveries can eat into their salaries.

The vast majority of drivers are migrant workers under the age of 26 who send most of their income home to support their families, according to a 2016 report by Meituan-dianping.

"Food delivery platforms' management needs to become more humane," the official People's Daily newspaper said in a recent commentary. "Switch from an operating model that only seeks speed to one that only seeks stability... don't let delivery drivers risk their lives delivering meals."

An Ele.me spokeswoman acknowledged that "balancing delivery speed and traffic safety is indeed very hard", adding that the company is working to use artificial intelligence to optimize routes and monitor drivers.

Criticism has mostly targeted food delivery companies as their drivers face greater time pressure and have less well-defined routes than those delivering other packages.

But the wider delivery industry also has its problems.

Niu Hongqiang, 23, a driver from Hebei province working for a package delivery company in Beijing said that the safety training he received was "useless."

"When something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way."

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd, Thomas Suen and Cate Cadell; Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell)