Has Uber Reduced Drunk Driving?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

For more information, please see these sites:

“Uber may help cut drunk-driving crashes, but not everywhere, study says” – CBS News

“Uber | MADD – Get Home Safe” – Uber

“Does Uber lead to less drunk driving? Its complicated” – The Verge

 

 

 

 

 

10 comments

  1. I’ve always pondered the question of whether Uber has had a positive effect on drunk driving, so thank you for writing on this! You shared some really interesting data points-especially the distraction that Uber drivers have with their phone on the dashboard. I always think that is just as much as a distraction as texting or looking at your phone, given eyes are there and not on the road. Also, I was not expecting a zero net effect on Uber and crashes in certain cities-it would be interesting to see if Uber helped drunk driving issues around college campuses.

  2. This was surprising! I, in the back of my mind, had always assumed that Uber reduced the amount of drunk drivers on the road: and it sounds like it might, but it has not reduced the amount of crashes on the road. I think it has definitely made the choice easier for people to just not drive when they go out. I guess I would also tend to argue the zero sum point in that even one person that does not have to make the choice of potentially driving home having had one beer to many is a win.

  3. I am really surprised by the statistic that Uber has had no impact on the amount of crashes in the four cities examined– I definitely think that Uber has had an effect on the amount of drunk driving crashes. One of the reasons there may be little change on states’ crash rates is because the amount of crashes caused by distracted driving has increased. According to the CDC, about 9 people are killed and 1,000 more are injured in crashes involving a distracted driver everyday in the United States. Prior to the digital revolution, crashes like these were almost nonexistent. Many other companies and people have realized this, as even Apple recently implemented a new driving feature that turns on do not disturb while users are driving. Great blog post!

  4. s_courtney18 · ·

    Very interesting blog post Cam! It’s cool that these four cities were perfect grounds for experimenting to see how the statistics could change. I wonder if there would be any statistical significance if this experiment only looked at certain parts of the day, such as night time/early morning driving, when one can assume the most drunk drivers would be on the road. I would also assume that there are a fair amount of crashes related to Uber drivers specifically being too distracted on their phones–there have been times when I have felt unsafe because my Uber driver has used multiple devices while driving me!

  5. Yvette Zhou · ·

    The topic has already caught my eyes on twitter ! Very interesting study and the result is probably not the same as we thought. In fact, it is very dangerous to use cell phones during driving and mobiles do distract uber drivers and usually they have more than one cell because one is only for the uber business. Maybe sometime uber should be installed on the audio set on cars once the networks of cars are built. That can be a safer way to use uber!

  6. britt_hopkins4 · ·

    This really surprises me on one hand, but on the other hand does not at all. I feel like the highest instances for drunk driving would not be at college or in cities where Uber is mainly focused, but in suburban towns with high schools. In my town, a ton of high school kids drove drunk because Uber wasn’t there and taxi companies were scarce. I think if Uber focused on these towns, they could really bring down the drunk driving rate. At college, most don’t have a car, so they wouldn’t be at risk for drunk driving anyway. I wonder how this would change if they changed their focus and redid the study in 10 years.

  7. Hilary_Gould · ·

    I’m really glad you broke this article down! I was head of safe rides at my high school during my senior year which was a free program that offered rides to anyone who went to my high school late at night to their homes. It was run completely by other volunteer students. Interestingly enough the program has been almost completely wiped out. It had been super popular because it was ~free~ and there weren’t many other options in the suburbs. Now, with Uber you don’t have to carry cash with you and there are more in remote locations. I definitely am someone who uses Uber largely when I plan on drinking. My parents have also commented on how now that they have 2 drinking and driving (not at the same time!!) age children they feel it’s important for them to set a good example so they started using Uber when they go to dinner with their friends. I think the main thing, like Brittney mentioned, is that the study doesn’t account for the fact that to reduce drunk driving the person who is taking the Uber would need to have a car as an alternative. I think in cities a lot of people rely on it for convenience instead of public transportation, but they don’t necessarily have access to a car as an alternative. Really interesting article though. I’m curious if there will be any more studies on this topic. Unfortunately, I’m afraid the new danger is being on your phone while driving.

  8. Some other colleagues of mine did a study that showed it did reduce drunk driving significantly. Some of these effects depend on the variety of assumptions the researchers make (or not). Regardless, the data is very rarely clear and incontrovertible.

    1. camcurrie99 · ·

      Hi, Professor Kane. Do you have more information about this study? I’d like to read and compare to the one I wrote about above to see differences and perhaps gain some insight into why each study showed something different. Thanks.

  9. I think it would be interesting to look at the number alcohol related crashes and number of DUI cases. I think that would be a better representation of how Uber has affected drinking and driving.

    I would be willing to make the trade off of limiting drunk drivers for an increase in the number of minor accidents. I also think that this leads to a very binary way of thinking. What if we put a value on each type of crash (Death accident-10 fender bender-1) and then look at the research to see the what the overall value of car accidents. I bet Uber has lowered the value of car accidents.

    I don’t really like how this study is set up. It doesn’t really help tell the story of what is actually happening.

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