Uber Has Yet to Reduce Drunk Driving Deaths, Study Says

Uber’s claim that it’s making the roads safer is only half-baked.

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Jul 28 2016, 5:39pm

Drinking and driving. Photo: Menna/Shutterstock

Uber has tried to position itself as everyone's favorite designated driver—like a superhero that fights drunk driving.

But a new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology says that ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have had no impact on the country's overall rate of drunk driving fatalities, which claim around 10,000 lives a year, since they started in 2009. The researchers say it's partly because drunk people aren't willing to pay for the cost of a ride.

"Uber has had a phenomenal rise," said David Kirk, co-author of the study and a sociologist at the University of Oxford. "And this was screaming for some solid research."

The report looked at traffic fatalities in the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the US between 2014 and 2009, when services like Uber were introduced, and studied the traffic patterns during holidays, weekends and otherwise regular days.

The authors accounted for the differences in state laws that could impact road safety, like texting bans, marijuana legislation and beer taxes. And they included the availability of taxis in their control methods, so that they weren't comparing metropolitan areas with access to cabs like to those without them.

"Ultimately the finding was that there was no association—no positive effect or negative effect," Kirk said.

Meanwhile, Uber insists that there is plenty of evidence that it's tackling the drunk driving problem, such as a Temple University study that found a drop of around 4 percent in alcohol-related deaths in the cities of California. (The study did not look at any other states or account for other regulation that could contribute to the impact.)

And 78 percent of the respondents in a survey that Uber conducted with advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving said their friends are less likely to drive drunk when they have access to ridesharing.

"Our ridership numbers show that trips peak at times when people are more likely to be out drinking and 80 percent of riders say that Uber has helped them personally avoid drinking and driving," an Uber spokeswoman told Motherboard.

Kirk agreed that this kind of anecdotal evidence could foretell a bigger benefit in the future if and when ridesharing becomes an even more popular practice. But he and the Temple researchers emphasize that it's not just about the presence of ridesharing that makes a difference: drunk drivers are often weighing the financial cost of calling a rideshare and the impulse of getting behind the wheel.

For now there are still around 112 million drunk driving incidents a year (and maybe a few from Uber drivers themselves). So surge pricing probably doesn't help.