Ride-hailing Apps Sharply Reduce Drunken Driving Deaths

A new study reveals that the introduction of Uber’s low-cost service, UberX, has reduced drunken driving deaths all over California. If ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft operated across the country, the study suggests, 500 lives would be saved each year. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

This story first appeared on The Daily Signal.

There were only two drunken driving arrests last New Year's Eve in San Francisco, the lowest it's been since 2009, according to crime statistics from the San Francisco Police Department given to the Ferenstein Wire.

These recent numbers come on the heels of a new study revealing that the introduction of Uber's low-cost service, UberX, has reduced drunken driving deaths all over California.

Temple University's Brad Greenwood and Sunil Wattal put out a new paper that finds that (not surprisingly) cheap taxi-like options make it easier for people to make the decision to call for a ride when drinking.

If the benefits of Uber in California were extended to the entire country, ride hailing would save billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. The study states that

economically, results indicate that the entrance of UberX results in a 3.6 percent–5.6 percent decrease in the rate of motor vehicle homicides per quarter in the state of California. With more than 13k deaths occurring nationally each year due to alcohol-related car crashes at a cost of 37 billion dollars, results indicate that a complete implementation of UberX would create a public welfare net of over 1.3 billion dollars to American taxpayers and save roughly 500 lives annually.

The overwhelming benefits of ride-hailing apps make it hard for local politicians to keep Uber out of their state or city with regulations.

Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio faced a backlash when he proposed to cap the number of ride-hailing cars that could be on the road in the city. Eventually, he withdrew his plans, but it was after Uber put forth a massive public campaign with costly political operatives.

This latest evidence makes the case that Uber isn't just a battle with local taxis but a battle against drunken drivers.

Previous attempts at estimating the reduction in the number of drunken driving deaths due to Uber were fraught with controversy. When Uber teamed up with Mothers Against Drunk Driving for a previous study, Uber ended up claiming that the conclusions of the research were much more convincing than MADD was willing to admit. There was just too much noise in the data.

This latest study uses more sophisticated statistical analysis and leverages a common economic trick to estimate the effects of Uber.

The decision to enter a market is often political. Uber will start hiring in a city if it knows it won't face overbearing regulation. This decision is often unrelated to other reasons why there might be reductions in drunken driving accidents, such as a "city's population, bar scene and tougher enforcement," the authors note.

California is uniquely important in the study because the state has been part of UberX's rollout since it first began, in 2012. This means research can look at what happens when Uber, or other ride-hailing companies, can saturate a city with enough of its drivers to change consumer behavior.

California is also large enough so that the economists can estimate the differences in how Uber affects cities within the same state as it slowly enters adjacent markets.

Today, Uber and Lyft drivers are all over San Francisco. As a resident, I can say that using ride-hailing apps in the city has just become part of the culture. Last New Year's Eve in San Francisco, there were so many Uber and Lyft drivers on the road that users didn't experience the dreaded "surge pricing," which in the past meant $100 for a short ride home.

There was little excuse for anyone to drive on New Year's Eve with such a plethora of cheap alternatives.

Although the numbers on San Francisco DUI's during New Year's Eve make it impossible to know if other factors helped cause the reduction in drunken driving, they do make the case that Uber was likely a significant, if not the primary, factor. Evidently, Uber, Lyft and other disruptive transportation services are not just saving people time and money but also saving lives.

Greg Ferenstein is the editor of the Ferenstein Wire, a syndicated news column.