Uber takes credit for big drop in drunk driving, but police are skeptical

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The ride-sharing service Uber is claiming that it is responsible for a dramatic drop in arrests of motorists driving under the influence of alcohol, but police and others question the assertion.

Ryan Graves, the company’s original employee and head of global operations, said that it's not surprising that Uber has become a popular designated driver.

In Los Angeles, 20 percent of Uber’s weekend business happens from midnight to 4 a.m., which happen to be peak drunk-driving hours. (That’s also usually the time the company jacks up its rates — as much as three times normal prices.)

Beyond that, Graves points to a couple facts to support the claim, the first of which is pretty gross. 

From Uber's blog:

In a general purpose research effort, we looked at Seattle as an example city with the most readily available data. Every city differs, but we find that this research strongly suggests that there is a relationship between people’s decision to drink and drive and increased transit options. We can reasonably extrapolate these results and apply them to what we consistently hear from our riders in Chicago and elsewhere.

We estimate that the entrance of Uber in Seattle caused the number of arrests for DUI to decrease by more than 10 percent. These results are robust and statistically significant.

Police, others question the Uber link

Seattle Police Detective Drew Fowler said Uber shouldn’t be taking credit for reducing DUIs.

“We have seen a decrease in the number of DUI arrests made," Fowler said. "If part of that can be assigned to the introduction of Uber, fantastic. But I don’t think proving the veracity of that is going to be very easy to do.”

Fowler said it's more likely that DUIs have fallen because of a crackdown on drunk driving as part of a statewide initiative called Target Zero. (It's also worth noting that although DUIs have fallen in Seattle since 2011, they aren't anywhere close to below the 2008 level, before Uber existed.)

For his part, Howard Jennings, managing director of Mobility Lab — Arlington, Va.,'s transportation research initiative — said he too was skeptical of Uber’s Seattle study. “Intuitively it makes sense from what we know about the use of Uber in the evenings, but I’m not prepared to say that that study proves causality,” Jennings said.

"That's fair pushback," said Uber's Graves. "I don't think we care that much about we whether have a 10 percent impact or 20 percent impact. I don't know if we need to claim the statistic. It's not really a beat-on-your-chest thing. It's more we know there's a very positive impact to the safety of cities."

Santa Monica Uber user

A couple nights ago, Angela Rubin was finishing up dinner on Main Street in Santa Monica and did what she and her husband always do after they’ve had a few drinks: Open up their smartphone and summon an Uber.

“We never drive,” she said, as they stood on the sidewalk, waiting for their Uber to pull up.

Leaving their cars parked at home for the night in this car-centric city would have been unthinkable a few years ago, before anyone had heard of Uber. Now it seems like a no-brainer.

“We just click on a button and take an Uber," Rubin said. "We have no worries. We don’t have to worry about drinking and driving. We don’t have to worry about getting home."

Justin Rubin said Uber is different from the traditional taxicab: It’s cheaper. It’s easier. And it’s even cool.

“For me, as an Angeleno, there’s not a lot of taxis that work for me," said Rubin. "But now, it’s made going out much easier.”

A company built on socializing

“It became very obvious we were going to have an impact on this issue from the earliest days of Uber in 2010,” Graves said.

That’s because Uber has always marketed itself around social experiences, which often involve alcohol.

“Most of our sign-ups come on weekends, when people are using Uber the most and probably partying the most,” said Graves.

Graves said Uber is still examining the link to drinking and driving in other cities (though the company hasn't been shy about trumpeting the Seattle study in other markets).

Researchers at Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center have been studying the link in San Francisco and hope to release preliminary results next month.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post recently looked at DUIs in San Francisco, where Uber is headquartered. It found that there has been a decline in DUIs since the company started operating there.

There has also been a drop in Philadelphia, especially among young people, according to an analysis from Pittsburgh resident and blogger Nate Good:

After all ride sharing services were in effect (April 2013 through the end of 2013), the average number of DUIs per month dropped across the board by 11 percent, with those under 30 being mostly responsible for the drop:

Overall: 1121.9 (11.1 percent decrease)
Under 30: 450.9 (18.5 percent decrease)
Over 30: 671 (5.3 percent decrease)

In Los Angeles, KPCC found DUI citations over the last five years issued by the California Highway Patrol peaked the year before Uber arrived and have fallen both years the company has been on the roads here. (Uber started operating in Los Angeles in April 2012. The low-cost UberX expanded here a year after that, along with competitor Lyft.)

MADD is hopeful

Both the CHP and the LAPD doubt ridesharing has impacted drunk driving, but Jan Withers, the President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has a marketing partnership with Uber, is more hopeful.

“The national data isn’t yet available but we really look forward to examining that in the future," said Withers. "The good news is that the early data is promising. And so we’re very hopeful that increased transportation alternatives can translate to lives saved and injuries prevented.”

After Uber slashed its fares recently, the company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, said his goal was to make the service so cheap that people would ditch their cars.

“The whole point of price cuts is to get UberX pricing below the cost of owning a car,” Kalanick told The New York Times. “Let’s say you take three or four trips a day on average. If we can get the price of UberX low enough, we can get to where it’s cheaper to take Uber than to own a car.”

That notion has pleased people like Withers, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver.

What better way to cut down on drunk driving than just cutting out driving altogether?

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