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Over the past couple of years ridesharing apps have claimed that they reduce drunk-driving arrests and fatalities in cities where the services are popular. Uber in particular has tapped into this claim by partnering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). In 2015 MADD published a report stating that there is “meaningful evidence of the power Uber’s network of safe, reliable rides has on drunk driving in major metropolitan cities.”

Cause and effect?

But the studies that ridesharing services cite come with a caveat: without more information, the link between lower drunk driving and the use of the apps is one of correlation rather than causation. In other words, just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean they are connected. Researchers note that many things can influence the rate of drunk-driving deaths and arrests, such as new laws, changes in DUI enforcement, or even the economy.

Now, a new study published in the July 2016 edition of The American Journal of Epidemiology says that when additional factors are taken into account, ridesharing apps don’t appear to lower drunk-driving fatalities after all. Scholars from the University of Southern California and Oxford University compared Uber’s launch in 100 of the most populated U.S. cities with alcohol-related traffic fatalities on weekends and holidays—times when both DUIs and app usage soar—and found no clear link between the two.

Drunk drivers don’t think they’ll get caught

Ridesharing apps are easy to use and have a devoted following—so why haven’t they made more of a difference on impaired driving?

In “Uber and Metropolitan Traffic Fatalities in the United States,” the authors speculate that when drunk, most people just don’t have the decision-making capacity to pick a ridesharing app over their own car (which is why anti-drunk-driving advocates urge people to arrange for a safe ride home before that first cocktail).

In addition, despite ongoing campaigns about the financial costs of a DUI, many would-be drunk drivers still think there’s a low chance they’ll actually get pulled over. After having one too many, people may believe that a free (though dangerous) drive home is worth the risk.

Moreover, while the apps are well-used among certain demographics, their overall adoption is still relatively small. The researchers acknowledged that if the services continue to grow, it’s possible they could show an impact on drunk-driving deaths in the future.

Certainly, anything that gives people another safe and easy alternative to driving after drinking is a step in the right direction. But for now, claims that ridesharing apps are making a noticeable dent in alcohol-related crashes and deaths seems to be premature.

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has over 15 years of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined AMS in 2013 and is currently a Senior Manager of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to AMS, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.