There were 111 million self-reported cases of alcohol-impaired driving in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drunk driving killed nearly 10,000 people in the U.S. that same year, about a third of all traffic related deaths, amounting to 28 people killed each day. Damage caused by drunk driving costs more than $44 billion annually.
Many efforts have tried to address the problem with ad campaigns, more severe punishments and increased efforts by law enforcement to monitor and stop drivers, with varied results. But it turns out a business just trying to make money may have had one of the most significant effects on the problem, at least in America’s most densely populated city.
The ride-sharing application Uber was introduced to most boroughs of New York City in May 2011 and was adopted quickly. A new working paper by Jessica Lynn Peck of the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York found that the city has seen a 25 to 35 percent decrease in alcohol-related crashes since then, amounting to about 43 fewer crashes per month. The paper analyzed data between January 2007 and July 2013.
New York City has widespread access to taxis and other public transportation, so why would Uber make such a large difference? The study doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but Peck does speculate that it has to do with Uber’s simplicity and less wait time for customers.
“In addition to the cost measured in wait time, Uber may also address the increased difficulty of cognitive functions after drinking. Navigation, uncertainty, and the necessity of completing arithmetic may generate higher costs when intoxicated,” Peck wrote. “A rider may summon an Uber ride to her physical location using GPS rather than navigating an unknown neighborhood to hail a cab or communicating on the phone with a cab dispatcher using a street address. Updates on the GPS location of her driver may be a valuable assurance that a cab has actually been dispatched, unlike the experience with phone-dispatch or street-hail taxis. The rider also need not retain enough cash for a ride home through Uber or calculate tip.”
Peck also examined the differences in boroughs, since Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens all implemented Uber quickly, while Staten Island has been slower. The four boroughs saw the decrease in drunk driving accidents, while Staten Island has remained about the same.
However, those findings may be true for New York City and not applicable to the rest of the country. Peck’s conclusion runs contrary to a study in 2016 that found Uber, and other ride-sharing apps such as Lyft, did not have an effect on drunk driving. That study looked at the 100 most populated metro areas in the U.S. between 2009 and 2014 and found no “visible impact” on drunk driving by the ride-sharing apps.
The authors of that study said they believed the lack of correlation could be due to Uber representing a “relatively small share of transportation usage in the United States.” If it became a more common use of transportation, such as in New York City, it could have more of an effect on drunk driving nationally.