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Despite Uber's Rise, New Study Says Drunk Driving Remains Steady


Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have given people a lot more options for getting around. Uber says there's a good side effect, too. It has discouraged drunken driving, but a new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology questions that claim.

DAVE KIRK: We found there was no significant change in the number of traffic fatalities pre to post Uber implementation.

MCEVERS: That's the study's co-author Dave Kirk of the University of Oxford. Uber points to a different study by Temple University that says ride-haling services have contributed to a decline in deaths related to drunken driving. So I asked Dave Kirk how he reconciles those two outcomes.

KIRK: You know, there's a couple differences. One is the authors of the other paper focused on California versus our sample is national. We look at the effect across the top hundred metropolitan areas in the country, so that's one difference. And then there's differences in modeling strategy. You know, so, for example, you know, we went to great lengths to assemble as much data as we possibly could including things that are correlated particularly with drunk driving-related traffic fatalities, such as alcohol taxes, seatbelt laws, texting laws, mobile phone use laws and so on and so forth.

MCEVERS: Your study looked at urban areas. And these are places where, you know, people who've had too much to drink usually have a lot of different ways to get home safely. You can call a taxi. You can use public transportation. You can call a friend. Now you have Uber and Lyft. What is your sense of why people might still be getting behind the wheel and driving?

KIRK: In some of these areas where there are several options for getting home after a night of drinking - that it may be the case that those people that are using Uber were not formerly the ones that would have been drinking and driving. They would have been taking a taxi instead. You know, the number of Uber drivers is, you know - has exponentially increased in recent years. It's a phenomenal growth.

You know, and I think I saw some figures from April of this year or something like 450,000 drivers, which, you know, has increased quite a bit in recent time. And the CDC estimates that 4.2 million people drive drunk in a given month. So when you compare kind of 450,000 to 4.2 million, it kind of suggests that despite its phenomenal rise over the past few years, that Uber doesn't have enough market share just yet to make a dent in the number of traffic fatalities.

MCEVERS: Despite that sort of large numbers of people who do drive while intoxicated, do you think that ride-hailing companies could or should play a bigger role in trying to prevent drunk driving-related deaths?

KIRK: I think an important next step in this research area is to see what happens if the growth of Uber and Lyft and others continues and they do have more drivers on the road to see if there is a decline in traffic fatalities.

Final comment - I would just say that fatalities are actually down about 25 percent over the past decade, so there has been major improvements in the United States in terms of reducing drunk-driving fatalities. And that's due to a number of factors - cars are safer, seatbelt laws, laws related to blood alcohol level. There is room for improvement because there are still you know 10,000 people that die from drunk driving in the United States each year and then there's, you know, more than 30,000 people that die in traffic fatalities in total.

MCEVERS: That was Dave Kirk. He's associate professor in sociology at the University of Oxford. Thank you very much.

KIRK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.