Can Uber really reduce drink driving deaths?

Uber, by night: Image: Getty.

It’s been 40 years since Britain enforced a legal limit of alcohol behind the wheel – but drink driving still took 220 lives in 2015.

One company trying to reduce this statistic is Uber, which is quite confident in its ability to lower alcohol-related road fatalities. It describes itself as a “powerful tool in the quest to protect families from drunk driving”, and has cited research backing this up in a number of major cities.

But while the intention is commendable, the data is not so conclusive. A study published earlier this year did find a 25 to 35 per cent reduction in alcohol-related car accidents in New York, following Uber’s arrival in 2011. Research from 2016, however, analysed data from the US’s 100 most populated metropolitan areas, and found Uber made no difference to traffic fatalities, including those involving alcohol.

So what explains the disparity? According to new research, it may come down to the design of individual cities.

Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania zoomed in on for US cities where Uber services had ceased then been reintroduced. Analysing data from state Departments of Transportation, they found a 29 per cent decrease in alcohol-involved crashes in San Antonio and a 62 per cent decrease in Portland, but in Reno there was no noticeable change.

The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, concludes that the impact of Uber on drink driving-related crashes could depend on a city's characteristics, and how much they discourage people from driving. A city with more congestion and limited parking, for example, may see a greater difference once Uber comes along. 

“Theoretically, ridesharing could reduce alcohol-involved crashes in locations where other modes of transportation are less attractive than driving one’s own vehicle while under the influence of alcohol,” the study states.

That said, this theory doesn’t explain the decrease in crashes in San Antonio, where public transport is scarce and most people rely on cars. And there are other factors at play, too. Disparities between cities may also be down to the willingness of locals to use other transportation, how expensive Uber fares are compared to the alternatives, even media attention and public interest in Uber. The study adds that, “The perceived attractiveness of ridesharing will depend, among other things, on a city’s topology and the strength and enforcement of drunk-driving laws.”


Despite the decrease in alcohol-involved crashes in Portland, there study found no changes to crashes with injury overall. “In our analyses the reductions in alcohol-involved crashes due to ridesharing were wholly offset by increases in non-alcohol crashes,” explains Christopher Morrison, the study’s lead researcher. “So it is possible that ridesharing doesn’t affect the overall number of crashes in a city.”  

What might cause these non-alcohol crashes? The paper states that rideshare drivers have to use a mobile phone when driving, which could cause “distraction in the form of glances away from the road,” subsequently increasing the risk of crashing.

But, Morrison adds, “Alcohol-involved crashes typically occur at higher speed and are more serious than non-alcohol crashes. So the benefits may still outweigh the costs.”

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.