No, A New Study Does Not Say Uber Has No Effect On Drunk Driving

from the put-down-your-drink-and-read-the-study dept

The first rule of science journalism is to read the study before you write about it. Alas, that hasn’t stopped media outlets from routinely misreporting, exaggerating or exercising insufficient skepticism about scientific research, particularly in the service of clickbait headlines and extra views.

A recent study from the American Journal of Epidemiology on whether the introduction of ridesharing has had an effect on alcohol-related crash fatalities was the latest victim of this kind of sloppy reporting. The Washington Post announced: “Is Uber reducing drunk driving? New study says no.” CNN declared: “Uber doesn’t decrease drunk driving, study says.” Fortune writes: “A New Study Says Uber Has Had No Impact on Drunk Driving.” Other outlets published similar stories.

But alcohol-related fatalities are not the same thing as drunk driving rates. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 10,000 Americans die each year in crashes involving a drunken driver; about two-thirds of that total are the drunken drivers themselves. But according to the FBI‘s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, there are annually about 1.1 million arrests for driving under the influence, which itself is just a fraction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate of 121 million incidents each year in which intoxicated drivers aren’t caught. Astoundingly, according to one analysis, drunk drivers average just one arrest per 27,000 miles driven while intoxicated.

Ideally, society would like each of these three numbers to fall, but first, we must be able tell them apart. The AJE study’s authors make clear that they “did not examine Uber’s association with other traffic outcomes, including drunk driving incidences and nonfatal crashes.” This leads one to the conclusion that these journalists ? or at least, those writing the headlines ? may not have actually read the study at all.

When it comes to whether services like Uber and Lyft reduce drunk driving overall, logic suggests that more available and convenient transportation options likely would make it easier for many to plan a night out without getting behind the wheel, and reduce the incentives to drive under the influence. The CDC already lists taking a taxi as an important preventative measure and ridesharing options are usually cheaper and very often more convenient than getting a taxi. As these services increase in popularity ? particularly among millennials, who both use ridesharing more and have a greater propensity to drive drunk ? one would expect a corresponding decline in the number of DUI arrests and alcohol-related fatalities.

There isn’t much research on the subject, but most observations to date seem to support the supposition. A 2015 study published by Temple University’s Fox School of Business concluded the introduction of UberX in California led to a reduction in the rate of motor-vehicles homicides per quarter of between 3.5 and 5.6 percent. Another study by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in partnership with Uber, also looked at the introduction of UberX in California and found that alcohol-related crashes by drivers under age 30 fell 6.5 percent, or 59.21 fewer crashes per month.

In June 2016, Providence College published a study which found that “DUIs are 15 to 62 percent lower after the entry of Uber” and the introduction of the service “is associated with a 6 percent decline in the fatal accident rate.” More recently, when Uber and Lyft were pushed out of Austin, Texas, DUI arrests spiked by 7.5 percent.

Given that background literature, it’s important to note some significant limitations in the approach used by the AJE study’s authors. They looked at data from 2005 to 2014 for the top 100 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in which Uber has entered the market. Of course, in many of those MSAs, the company may be operating in the largest city or cities, but not across the whole metropolitan area. Also notable is that in most of the MSAs the study examines, Uber was introduced at some point in 2014, the same year the authors’ data ends.

Additionally, many of these jurisdictions also did not have friendly regulatory climates for ridesharing in the period the authors examined. Aside from California and Colorado, where state-level pre-emption laws were passed, most ridesharing regulation through 2014 was done at the city level. It was fairly common at the time for transportation network companies to have uncertain legal status and for jurisdictions to impose hostile regulations, issue cease and desist orders or hold sting operations to block Uber and Lyft from operating. Additionally, carpool services like UberPOOL and Lyft Line, which are significantly cheaper, had not yet become widely available. Today, ridesharing is cheaper, more popular and fully legal in most major cities.

It also may not be that surprising the AJE study didn’t line up with results from other research that focused on California. Uber was founded in San Francisco and launched there in 2009. Lyft launched in 2012. TNCs have been legal statewide in California since the California Public Utilities Commission’s initial rulemaking in 2013. California is the oldest and probably strongest ridesharing market. If ridesharing has an effect on alcohol-related fatalities or drunk driving more generally, it would show up there first.

In much of the rest of the country, ridesharing is not as well-established. According to Pew, as of December 2015, only 15 percent of U.S. adults had used a ridesharing service. Of those, only 17 percent reported they use it more than once or twice a month. In short, outside of millennials in major urban centers, ridesharing hasn’t yet caught on in a big way.

More research looking at more recent data is needed to better understand the effects of ridesharing on drunk driving rates. And with each new report, whatever its conclusion, one hopes science journalists will bring more care and a healthy skepticism to the table. In the meantime, this study alone isn’t a compelling reason to dismiss other evidence supporting the positive effects of ridesharing on reducing drunk driving.

Zach Graves is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a free market think tank based in Washington, DC

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Companies: uber

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Comments on “No, A New Study Does Not Say Uber Has No Effect On Drunk Driving”

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Whatever says:

In a sea of potential data points, it’s almost impossible to attribute a decrease (or increase) in drunk driving solely to an “app hailed pseudo-taxi” system like Uber.

Why? Well, Uber is a somewhat easier version of calling a taxi. Taxis are common in almost every area Uber operates. Often, those Taxis are priced better than surge priced Uber. If people don’t want to drive their car drunk, a taxi has been an alternative for a long time already.

There are plenty of other things that can impact drink driving rates. Things like how hard (and how risky) it would be to leave your car at the bar / club / neighborhood you are in, taking a taxi home and potentially another taxi back the next day to rescue your car. There is the question of distance (ie, if you live father away, the cost of a taxi (or app hailed service) might be prohibitive. There is also the question of how enthusiastically the club staff, friends, and others may be in encouraging you to leave the car and take a ride instead.

There are literally so many things that play into that choice that it’s unlikely that there would be any real way to attribute anything to ride sharing (bad name, as Uber is essentially a taxi dispatch service now, not a ride sharing system). Anyone who claims either way is likely engaged in bunk science – or is just working to get a really good headline on their website.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Well, Uber is a somewhat easier version of calling a taxi”

So… the fact that it’s easier means it must have some impact somewhere, right? It’s not just about replacing one taxi journey with another.

“There are plenty of other things that can impact drink driving rates”

Does the article say there aren’t? The only complaint here is that the reporting completely rejects the Uber factor while the study they are reporting on does not. It makes no other claims.

Your schtick doesn’t change, you say meaningless, misleading or irrelevant “facts” as if you’re refuting something, yet you have no actual point unless it’s a fiction. But, hey, it’s a guest author so you can’t personally attack them this time at least.

Whatever says:

Re: Re: Re:

“the fact that it’s easier means it must have some impact somewhere, right? “

Nope, sorry. No data to support this. There is no “must” here. Potentially it does, but that assumes that the only thing stopping someone from drunk driving was the availability of a ride. That would make sense where there are no existing taxi services, but is less meaningful where taxis are abundant.

“Your schtick doesn’t change, you say meaningless, misleading or irrelevant “facts” as if you’re refuting something, yet you have no actual point unless it’s a fiction. But, hey, it’s a guest author so you can’t personally attack them this time at least.”

You summed up your post perfectly. “Must”? Really?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Potentially it does”

So, despite your whining about a specific word, you admit something that your entire rambling post above attempted to reject out of hand. Interesting. Hey, at least you seem to have stopped pretending that the post you’re commenting on said that Uber was the only factor. Funny how someone calling you out on your bullshit gets you to suddenly stop lying, huh?

“You summed up your post perfectly. “Must”? Really?”

Yes. I don’t believe that Uber will have had zero effect, even if all it did was cause people to call a different company. Wider availability of cars could have an effect even if all they’re doing is using the Uber app instead of whatever local cab company they have stored. You’re free to discuss facts, if you ever bother to present them instead of dressing up your own misinformed opinions as such. I’m open to any honest discussion.

So, yes, my post was summed up by “I doubt your premise, but I’m willing to discuss facts if you bother to bring them to the table for once in your pathetic posting career”. That sums up most of my posts in response to sad little trolls like yourself.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Taxis are common in almost every area Uber operates.

Common does not mean enough. Specially on peak times.

Often, those Taxis are priced better than surge priced Uber.

In your Ponyland ™? Empirical data on my own rides say the opposite. The only time Uber almost got to taxi prices here was when I checked a ride to a major show. Even then Uber was cheaper. And even considering the new R$0,10 (US$0,03) per kilometer tax the city imposed on Uber and the likes it is still nearly 40% cheaper than taxis. Of course, your city may be different but it’s not the rule (if it happens in fact).

There are literally so many things that play into that choice that it’s unlikely that there would be any real way to attribute anything to ride sharing

Indeed. But you see, when you ban these services and immediately see a surge in DUI driving as it happened in Texas then it’s kind of hard not to tell that these apps had a major influence in DUI. But of course, you and your friend loons downplayed the huge and clear impact streaming services at affordable prices had in piracy so it isn’t a surprise you went that route.

ZachGraves (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Which raises a good point — that Uber may never be availably in truly rural areas since it depends on a certain population density to be profitable (for both driver and service). Although autonomous vehicles may change that.

It’s also true that Uber/Lyft are better able to meet spikes in demand than taxis. They have a more flexible, largely part-time work force. Basically, surge pricing is a good thing.

Whatever says:

Re: Re: Re:

Uber can be cheaper. It’s not always cheaper. At closing time for the bars, you can bet it’s not going to be significantly cheaper, as surge / demand pricing would kick in and the shortage of drivers would move that even further along.

For someone drunk enough not to drive, the difference of a few bucks one way or the other isn’t going to be a sudden sway issue. If their taxi home is $46 instead of $53, do you think they will suddenly take an Uber instead of driving?

You have to apply a little logical thinking here. There are more significant issues at hand than a 10% or 205% lower taxi fare. There is some other issue or set of issues that keeps the drunks in their cars.

“when you ban these services and immediately see a surge in DUI driving as it happened in Texas then it’s kind of hard not to tell that these apps had a major influence in DUI. “

You are using the “reverse” to try to prove the “forward” which isn’t always easy. Part of the problem here is that many people are so pro Uber that they would refuse a normal taxi outright just to make a stand. You are also taking a fact and pulling to much out of it:

“DUI (driving under the influence) arrests have gone up by 7.5% compared to the previous year. ” (quoted from Techdirt story).

A 7.5% increase sounds huge, until you realize that the numbers for a full month moved from 334 to 359. Put in context, they went from 10 a day (in a 31 day month) to 11.5. They entire increase could have been caused by a single police DUI checkpoint. It’s a typical percentage trick, making very small numbers seem so much more significant.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“At closing time for the bars, you can bet it’s not going to be significantly cheaper”

You can also bet that local smaller cab companies are going to be very busy at that time. Thus, Uber can take the slack and get more people home who would otherwise be tempted not to wait for a cab and drive instead. It doesn’t matter how much cheaper a cab is if the local companies are maxed out and the drunk decides to take the wheel rather than wait 30 mins for the next taxi.

That’s one of the other points raised. You know, the facts you ignore when they’re not convenient to whichever strawman you currently wish to push.

However, pricing is important, because Uber is usually cheaper. Even if they have to pay surge pricing at the time they want to get home, if Uber is usually a cheaper or more convenient option, it’s more likely people will have the app on their phone. That makes it more likely they’ll turn to the app, be that before or after trying as local cab, and thus more likely they’ll have contacted some form of transport before driving.

I know you have a pathological need to be contrary to every article here, but you’re failing to consider reality, as usual, just to pretend you have a point.

“You have to apply a little logical thinking here.”

Yes. Yes you do.

Whatever says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Paul, honestly, you are an idiot.

Do some reading. Drunk drivers aren’t choosing between a taxi or uber, they are choosing between driving and driving. The availability or lack of for Uber isn’t going to make that big a change.

The change noted in the story (the scary 7.5% increase when Uber was gone) was small enough in real numbers to be the difference of a single check point run on a Saturday night (literally 20 cases).

I deal with reality… something you seem disconnected to in your expat tax haven.


PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Paul, honestly, you are an idiot.”

Ah, polite, intelligent conversation as ever.

“Do some reading.”

No, I’ll go with personal experience, unless you have some research to point to (strange how you always make bare faced claims but never back yourself up with a single citation, isn’t it?)

Generally speaking, if someone’s determined to drive, they will unless stopped. If, however, they are not committed to driving (or have successfully been talked out of driving to some degree), then cost and time waiting will both be factors. If Uber is quicker, more convenient and cheaper than a taxi, that will reduce drink driving.

Now, I’ll admit there may be some cultural difference in how I’ve experienced such situations, but I’ve seen bar staff talk people out of drink driving on many numerous occasions and get them to take a cab. The times it fails tends to be when they have to wait too long or the phone line is busy. That’s where Uber can obviously make some difference.

“The availability or lack of for Uber isn’t going to make that big a change.”

But, you admit that it will make a change?

“I deal with reality… something you seem disconnected to in your expat tax haven.”

Sadly, no you don’t. There’s at least 3 or 4 massive flaws in your fantasy versions of both me and the places I live and work, which you still fail to realise. Perhaps instead of using your warped imagination to construct a strawman army, you could research? I’ll be happy to tell you exactly where you’re full of shit if you need a clue.

DB (profile) says:

A misquote of a misinterpretation of a non-study

The quoted story of “27,000 drunk driving miles per arrest” is obviously bogus. First of all you linked to an AOL story that quoted a different source that had extrapolated from a NHTSA report. And that report was clearly “stacking the number” — counting the same cost multiple times to exaggerate the cost of the problem. Which is fine for an opinion piece, but it’s just the sort of bogus number that changes from unsupported guess to “established fact” after being quoted a few times.

DB (profile) says:

The reference wasn’t to the book, but to a story that referenced back to SuperFreakonomics.

I enjoy the Freakonomics stories, but they often omit important details in order to make a point. In this case, they were just one of the several hopping points to legitimizing a number that is bogus.

It appears that the data source that the “27,000 miles” estimate came from was using the category “alcohol positive”, which is much larger than the 0.05 BAC number that NHTSA uses as a base number for risk.

It’s worth reading the actual NHTSA study reports, rather than the ‘opinion piece’ summaries. They don’t publicize that at the lower levels of “alcohol positive” your risk of an accident goes down. At 0.01 BAC it’s about half of a typical sober driver. So if you toss in the low end of “alcohol positive” driving, there are a lot of mile driven by people that have had a drink but aren’t arrested. But they aren’t legally drunk or statistically dangerous.

ZachGraves (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Again, it’s not really important to the argument. But the passage is:

“For the past few decades, we’ve been rigorously educated about the risks of driving under the influence of alcohol. A drunk driver is thirteen times more likely to cause an accident than a sober one. And yet a lot of people still drive drunk. In the United States, more than 30 percent of all fatal crashes involve at least one driver who has been drinking. During the late-night hours, when alcohol use is greatest, that proportion rises to nearly 60 percent. Overall, 1 of every 140 miles is driving drunk, or 21 billion miles each year.
Why do so many people get behind the wheel after drinking? Maybe because—and this could be the most sobering statistic yet—drunk drivers are rarely caught. There is just one arrest for every 27,000 miles driven while drunk. That means you could expect to drive all the way across the country, and then back, and then back and forth three more times, chugging beers all the while, before you got pulled over. As with most bad behaviors, drunk driving could probably be wiped out entirely if a strong-enough incentive were instituted—random roadblocks, for instance, where drunk drivers are executed on the spot—but our society probably doesn’t have the appetite for that.”

Prashanth (profile) says:

Driving drunk anyway

This isn’t entirely relevant to the actual discussion at hand, but I have to wonder: is it that realistic to expect significant decreases in drunk driving rates across the board just through better availability of alternatives (like ridesharing)? There are two issues that I can think of in this regard.
1. Wouldn’t it be plausible that the people who drive drunk are the people who would rather drive under any circumstance anyway (so they wouldn’t even consider ridesharing, while they are drunk)?
2. Aren’t the people who drive drunk the people who brought their car to wherever they consumed alcohol and are under the belief that they need to drive back to bring their car back home too? Why would they take ridesharing then?

tommygilley (profile) says:

Logical Errors in Study

I drive for Uber and Lyft. I see tons of people every night who might have driven home after a couple of drinks choose otherwise. I will admit there are people who might not have had any drinks that will now drink now that ridesharing services are available, but to discount the obvious mitigation of drunk driving due to ridesharing is not sane.

First, you can only look at the reducing affects of ridesharing by only looking at the population which actively uses ridesharing. Regulation and market friction keeps ridesharing from being anything but a small force on society, so for most of the drinking public ridesharing is a non factor. Their drunk driving is irregardless of the availability of an uber. If you localize within the population which is actively engaged in ridesharing usage and determine the rate of drunk driving within that population, you will see the true effects. A can of wasp spray has no measurable effect on the mortality of wasps worldwide, but it has a substantial effect in my garage.

These studies are a non story, and have the smell of corporate funding from a friendly source.

kellyllek (profile) says:

What? Has Uber actually caused more fatalities?

Many seem quite excited that the study says Uber and Lyft show no statistical reduction in drunk driving fatalities. So in a way that could be saying that these services may have actually caused one or two extra drunk driver facilities? Statistically that would also means no change.

I don’t think so! My thoughts are based on common sense and common sense says that somewhere someone took an Uber home instead of driving their vehicle drunk, and that that particular person did not die that night, or kill another, all because they had the an app which they were far more likely to utilize than calling for a cab.

So in the millions upon millions of journeys, if just one life was saved, it makes it all worth it. Just one life! It may not register a statistical difference, but it’s all that matters.

Or are the studies somehow saying that with more drivers there’s just more people on the road all the time therefore more likely someone extra will die? If that were true or not, it all really means it’s best for the google and tesla robots to take over, and the sooner the better. Personally I can’t wait, because I already trust the robots over the testing tennager. An as soon as they take over drunk driving deaths, at least, will be ZERO!

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