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.”

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.