Uber claims to curb drunk driving. But could the ride-hailing app actually save lives by reducing the number of alcohol-related car crashes in cities? Well, it depends where you live.
Previous studies into the link between ride-hailing services and drink-driving rates have had mixed results, and focussed on whether drunk people can easily summon a cab but averaged crash data across cities. New research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania looked at specific cities, taking into account differences in Uber use and availability of public transport.
Uber operates in 274 cities in North America and the researchers looked at State Department of Transportation data from four of those cities: Las Vegas (Nevada), Portland (Oregon), Reno (Nevada), and San Antonio (Texas).
What all these cities have in common is that Uber launched, ceased and then resumed its service, with the researchers focusing on the relauch period in each city for their study, looking at total number of crashes as well as alcohol-related crashes.
The results were mixed. Alcohol-related crashes decreased by 61.8 per cent as Uber resumed its services in Portland, and 58.9 per cent in San Antonio. However, in Reno there was no noticeable change. In Las Vegas, there were no figures available for the number of alcohol-related crashes.
“This research suggests the technology is likely to affect crashes, particularly alcohol-involved crashes, differently from city to city,” said lead author Christopher Morrison. The variations are down to differences in the cites themselves, the researchers explain.
Considering Las Vegas, they noted that it has a high number of tourists who won’t be visiting with their own cars, suggesting ride-hailing apps will have less of an impact on accidents. The study is published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
“The observed variability may be due to the different conditions within these cities,” said senior author Douglas J Wiebe. “For example, 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.”
The researchers found no evidence that Uber’s resumption of service resulted in fewer total injury crashes or fewer serious crashes in cases where alcohol was not a factor. The researchers said that a possible interpretation of the results suggests that ridesharing actually increases the overall number of crashes, perhaps because drivers are distracted by the smartphones that direct them, calling for future research into this area.
Indeed, there’s plenty of scope for more research. The researchers only looked at Uber, rather than expanding the sample to include rivals such as Lyft. Plus, while the research was focussed on US cities, it raises interesting questions over whether Uber (and other ride-hailing apps) could help to reduce drink-driving accidents around the world – or whether their impact is dependent on the city’s existing infrastructure and characteristics.
The potential for public safety benefits are worth considering here in the UK, where Uber is appealing to have its London licence to operate renewed. Across the UK, some 200 people were killed on UK roads in alcohol-related accidents in 2015, according to government data, with the total 8,470 of casualties in drink drive accidents reported in the same year a rise of three per cent year-on-year.