The ease and convenience of Uber and other ridesharing services are helping to reduce drunk-driving crashes, but a recent study by Christopher Morrison, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that this reduction is not as widespread as we may hope. The study looked at ridesharing program availability and car crash history in four cities: Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; and San Antonio, Texas. In each of these four cities, Uber was the largest ridesharing service and was the focus of the study.
These cities were chosen for the survey because Uber followed a similar history in each city, where Uber was “launched, discontinued, and eventually reinstated.” This historical pattern is important because of one metric that resulted from the study: in not one of these four cities “did Uber’s resumption of service result in fewer total injury crashes or serious crashes overall,” meaning that Uber had a net zero effect on crashes whether or not they were operating in a particular city. A surprising result from the study was that while there was a reduction in alcohol-related crashes, there was not a reduction in crashes overall. Morrison, though he was not sure of the exact reason, said it was potentially due to an increase in non-alcohol involved crashes.
The study suggests that different cities are affected differently by the presence of Uber, depending upon several local factors such as the availability of public transportation. A colleague of Morrison, Douglas Weibe, suggested that “in a denser urban center with congested traffic and limited parking, a person may be more likely to use a ride-sharing service to get around,” meaning that varying usage of Uber services and using Uber for different reasons may cause differences in the study data between city to city.
The study did find some good news. In Portland, Oregon, researchers found a 60% decrease in alcohol-related crashes following the introduction of ridesharing. Importantly, Morrison said that when thinking about these results, “some caution if warranted,” meaning that they do not yet entirely understand the relationship between ridesharing and non-alcohol and alcohol-related crashes.
Uber, on their website, touts a partnership with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). MADD SVP Amy George said that, despite the study, “ride sharing makes it easier than ever to make the safe choice not to drink and drive.” MADD refers to Uber drivers as the “ultimate designated driver” and that they have “removed the excuse to drive drunk.”
But exactly how safe is that designated driver? If alcohol-related crashes decreased, but overall crashes remained the same, what kind of other crashes increased? The research team hypothesized that Uber could be part of the problem. The researchers suggested that “because rideshare drivers must monitor a mobile device, and distraction in the form of glances away from the road increases crash risks, it is conceivable that rideshare drivers are at increased risks for crashing compared with non-rideshare drivers.” While it is illegal in Massachusetts and many other states to use a mobile phone while driving, there are exceptions to the law that allow for dashboard mounted phone use, such as those device holders used by ridesharing drivers. Ridesharing drivers, from my own experience, use these devices frequently while driving and must indeed monitor them before, throughout, and after a ride. The researchers make sure to mention that this is just a hypothesis and that future research would need to be conducted to truly make this claim.
For many Boston College students, transportation is a difficult topic as very few students have personal vehicles and the MBTA is unreliable at best (or, at least that is our running assumption). Many students use Uber for going grocery shopping, getting to job interviews, etc. But, a large percentage of student Uber use is for going out to bars, meaning that they need a safe way to get there and back. For students that go to more suburban schools looking to come into the city, driving may be their first instinct which could indeed cause a dangerous driving situation later in the night. Social pressures can make even the most responsible person do the wrong thing at the wrong time. With widely-available ridesharing programs in our area, students can go out for drinks without endangering themselves or others on the road. Students are also very cost-sensitive given the fact that many either do not work or do not work often, and the cost of taxis could potentially have driven students to make bad decisions. Uber’s inexpensive pricing and ease of use make it particularly attractive to students and thus it would not surprise me if drunk driving rates among younger drivers had decreased.
According to Uber’s webpage on their partnership with MADD, “88% of people 21+ agree that Uber has made it easier to avoid driving after drinking” and “78% of people say that since Uber launched in their city their friends are less likely to drive after drinking” all according to a survey done by the independent Benenson Group in 2014.
Ultimately, current knowledge shows that Uber has had mixed effects when it comes to drunk driving and automobile crashes overall. As time goes on, more data will become available and we may be able to identify more concrete impacts of ridesharing. As ridesharing users, what are your thoughts? Do you think Uber and other ridesharing services have had an impact on drunk driving and car crashes? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
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