Expert Commentary

Does Uber curb drunk driving crashes?

Ridesharing services such as Uber might help curb drunk driving crashes in some communities.

Person driving car at night
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Hada)

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.

Other resources:

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