The issue: In 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic crashes in the United States, and almost one-third of those deaths were the result of drunk driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for anyone between the ages of 16 and 25.
For decades, law enforcement agencies and campaigners such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving have urged everyone who has been drinking to travel by taxi or public transportation or with a “designated” sober driver. As ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft become more popular, they also are being promoted as a way to save lives. In 2016, MADD named Uber its “official designated driver app.”
But do ridesharing services really make roads safer? Scholars say the results are mixed. A new study that looks specifically at ridesharing in four large cities offers additional insights.
A study worth reading: “Ridesharing and Motor Vehicle Crashes in 4 U.S. Cities: An Interrupted Time-Series,” American Journal of Epidemiology, October 2017.
Study summary: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to see whether Uber helps curb vehicle crashes in four U.S. cities: Las Vegas, Nevada; Portland, Oregon; Reno, Nevada; San Antonio, Texas. The team chose these four areas because they provided “natural experiments in places where Uber launched, abruptly ceased operations, and then abruptly resumed.”
In all four cities, Uber began operating sometime between Jan. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2015 and then, because of a ban or voluntary cessation, ceased operations for at least three months. In each community, Uber resumed its ridesharing service continuously in the first half of 2016.
The researchers hypothesized that the temporary break in operations would have a greater effect on crash rates. They examined crash records beginning Jan. 1, 2013, focusing on alcohol-related crashes. They also looked at all crashes resulting in injuries in the four cities and crashes with “serious” injuries in Portland and San Antonio.
Some key takeaways:
- In San Antonio, the number of crashes with serious injuries dropped after Uber initially began offering rides. Uber’s launch was associated with 1.9 fewer serious-injury crashes per week, on average. There was no significant change in Portland.
- After Uber stopped and then resumed operations, three cities saw no changes in crashes with injuries. Data for San Antonio was inconclusive.
- A drop in alcohol-related crashes coincided with Uber resuming service in Portland and San Antonio, but not in Reno. In Portland, for example, there were 3.1 fewer crashes per week, on average. Data for alcohol-involved crashes in Las Vegas was incomplete.
- The authors suggest that future research examine whether drivers who work for rideshare services are at an increased risk of crashing because they monitor a mobile device to check for ride requests.
- Uber, founded in 2009, is among the most popular ridesharing apps. Riders use Uber in 77 countries to take 10 million trips a day.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) releases annual reports on fatal traffic crashes. In October 2017, the agency reported that “distracted driving and drowsy driving fatalities declined, while deaths related to other reckless behaviors — including speeding, alcohol impairment, and not wearing seat belts — continued to increase.”
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer reports on leading causes of death by year and state. The agency also provides data on self-reports of impaired driving.
- The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Penn Injury Science Center are some of the academic organizations that research alcohol and driving.
- A 2017 study published in Pediatrics, “Alcohol Policies and Alcohol-Related Motor Vehicle Crash Fatalities Among Young People in the U.S.,” suggests many children and young adults die in crashes involving drivers who have been drinking but whose blood-alcohol level is below the legal limit.
- A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Effect of Maryland’s 2011 Alcohol Sales Tax Increase on Alcohol-Positive Driving,” finds that raising the sales tax on alcohol in Maryland led to a decline in drunk driving crashes with injuries.
- A 2017 paper from researchers at Western Carolina University, “Ride-Sharing, Fatal Crashes, and Crime,” indicates fewer people are charged with driving under the influence in areas where Uber service is available.
- A 2016 study in American Journal of Epidemiology, “Uber and Metropolitan Traffic Fatalities in the United States,” finds that “the deployment of Uber services in a given metropolitan county had no association with the number of subsequent traffic fatalities, whether measured in aggregate or specific to drunk-driving fatalities or fatalities during weekends and holidays.”