Report: Uber means fewer drunk driving deaths

Previous research on ride-sharing service's drunk driving effects has been called flawed

The on-demand car service Uber may be reducing drunk driving deaths, according to a new study by two professors at Temple University's Fox School of Business. 

Uber's effect on drunk driving has been debated in recent months. In January, the company and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) released a report that found "a direct relationship between the presence of uberX (Uber's lowest-cost option) in a city and the amount of drunk driving crashes involving younger populations."

But the investigative journalism not-for-profit ProPublica took issue with the MADD report's findings, arguing that the methodology was flawed because it tracked DUI arrests—not crashes—among other concerns.

Details on the study

The latest study was published earlier this year in Social Science Research Network and was presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management this week.

Temple associate professors Brad Greenwood and Sunil Wattal analyzed 2009-2014 crash data from the California Highway Patrol to estimate Uber's effect on drinking-related crashes in 14 California counties. The data include a driver's blood alcohol content, the number of people involved, speed, and other environmental factors.

Related: Why binge drinking never fades

The researchers then compared the crash data to when Uber became available in each county. Overall, the study found uberX—the ride-sharing service's lowest-cost option—correlated with between a 3.6% and 5.6% decline in drunken driving deaths. And Greenwood says the decline is likely causal. "If there's an overall drop off [in drunk driving deaths], we wouldn't see an effect that's just correlated with Uber," he explains.

The researchers estimate a nationwide rollout of uberX would result in approximately 500 fewer deaths annually.

The downside of 'surge' pricing: more costly Ubers

However, the study did not find a correlation between Uber's more expensive black car service and a decline in deaths. This "suggests that a coupling of cost and availability is the key driving force behind the decrease in DUI related deaths," the study says.

And that could complicate Uber's efforts to promote the safety value of its service while still using so-called "surge" pricing during high-demand times. "I think the company is cognizant of the fact that [surge pricing] may have this negative effect on the rate of drunk driving," Greenwood says.

Even so, Natasha Thomas, the program director for the Bay Area chapter of MADD, praised ride sharing as a tool to make roads safer. "We definitely do believe that Uber, or any other ride-sharing company, has helped us in our fight against drunk driving" she says (Schwartz, GOOD, 8/10; Grochowski Jones, ProPublica, 2/3; Goebel, KQED News, 8/7; Academy of Management release, 7/31).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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