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Does Uber help reduce drunk driving?

You might feel relieved to see a line of Uber cars outside a bar at closing time. None of the people climbing in are going to be driving drunk, and the streets will be safer for everyone. Or will they be?

Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft often boast that they make cities safer, and Uber cites decreases in drunk-driving crashes since launching in California in 2012. But a recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found no association between Uber's deployment in a metro area and drunk-driving traffic fatalities in the area.

The researchers looked at the 100 most populated metro areas across the country - including Milwaukee, where Uber first set up shop in early 2014 - and controlled for regional differences such as seatbelt law enforcement, beer tax rates, unemployment rates and the availability of taxis. They found no link between Uber deployment in a metro area and the subsequent number of overall traffic fatalities, fatalities related to drunk driving or traffic fatalities on holiday weekends.

Why wouldn't Uber reduce traffic fatalities?

It seems counterintuitive. As the study's authors note, "If would-be drunk drivers were rational, then lowering the difficulty of finding alternate transportation options and the cost of those options would, in theory, reduce the number of drunk driving occurrences and fatalities." But that doesn't appear to happen - or at least not yet. Why not? The researchers have a few possible explanations:

  • For starters, a drunk person might not be all that likely to make a rational decision. An Uber ride may be a very affordable and easy option - but that doesn't mean the average drinker is going to choose it.
  • Uber drivers still makes up a very small percentage of drivers on the road. There simply might not be enough Ubers to make a significant difference.
  • People might take Uber instead of a taxi or bus, but not instead of driving. So a person who would otherwise take a cab after a few drinks now takes an Uber, but a person who would risk a DUI instead of take a cab is still just as likely to take the risk.

We'll see if research after Uber's been around longer tells a different story. But at an individual level, there's no doubt that plenty of people can think of a time Uber made it easier for them or their friends to get home safely.

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