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Drinking & Driving Rates in Cities with Ridesharing & Public Transit

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015:

  • Over 10,000 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in the United States. This figure is about one-third of all traffic-related deaths.
  • Among children up to 14 years old, 209 of 1,132 traffic deaths involved a driver who was impaired by alcohol.
  • Approximately 1.1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.
  • About 111 million individuals reported they drove while they believe they were impaired by alcohol.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that in 2015, it is estimated that over 15 million American adults over the age of 18 met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. There are no actual statistics to determine how many of these individuals drove while they were impaired by their use of alcohol, but it is a safe bet to assume that most of them drove at least once while under the influence of alcohol.

According to data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the states that have the highest rates of drinking and driving in relation to their overall population are most likely:

  • Delaware
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota

The states with the lowest rates of drinking and driving are most likely:

  • California
  • Idaho
  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon

Do Ridesharing Options or Public Transportation Availability Decrease Drunk Driving Rates?

From a macro point of view (large city or state comparisons), this question is very hard to determine because many states with high or low rates of arrests for drunken driving often have other factors that contribute to the situation. For example, California has very stringent laws regarding insurance regulations and even a single DUI offense.

Instead, it is more useful to look at some of the research on specific types of programs that has addressed this question. Many of these are community-based programs, and small-level correlational research has been done on quite a few of these. Correlational research looks at associations between variables, but cannot determine cause-and-effect relationship.

One such study was reported in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. The Designated Drivers Association of San Diego is a nonprofit association that provides a free service of up to 15 miles and then charges that vary depending on distances that are greater of 15 miles. The program covers the city of San Diego and the surrounding areas on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to a.m., and on major holidays. The program utilizes drivers in teams of two to drive individuals home in their own vehicle and is advertised throughout the city. A survey of over 1,500 riders indicated that the average client reported drinking over an average of nearly five hours in which they consumed an average of nearly eight drinks. Forty-four percent of the drivers reported that if they did not use the service, they would have driven themselves home. The average length of the drive for the participants was 11 miles for a freeway route and 14 miles for a non-freeway route. Given the data collected by the study, it is clear that the service probably has a significant effect in reducing drinking and driving while intoxicated within the city of San Diego.

NHTSA has funded several other projects. Road Crew was one of the projects that was funded to seek a reduction in alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin. Driving services were offered to drinkers from bar to bar in buses and other forms of public transportation. Primary targets were males between the ages of 21 and 34. By 2008, the program had given over 97,000 rides, prevented an estimated 140 alcohol-related automobile crashes, and most likely saved the lives of multiple individuals. Similar programs have been utilized on college campuses.

The Tipsy Taxi program was utilized in Aspen, Colorado, as part of an approach to the prevention of DUI that includes education and enforcement. The project was originally conducted in 1983 by NHTSA to reduce drinking and driving. The program is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and involves a server of alcoholic beverages (formally trained to recognize intoxication) or a police officer offering an intoxicated individual the option of using the program. Vouchers are authorized by these trained professionals, and individuals can use them for transportation. Nighttime injuries, fatal crashes, and alcohol-related accidents declined 15 percent after the implementation of the program, and there was no reduction of similar incidents in counties without the program. However, as mentioned above, this type of research cannot conclude that the program caused a reduction in alcohol-related incidents.

All of these studies have not had positive effects associated with their implementation. For instance, the CareFare program was another ridesharing program sponsored by NHTSA in the mid-1990s. This program occurred in Dane County, Wisconsin, and was set up in a banking firm (white collar) and manufacturing company (blue collar). The program provided low-cost taxi rides for individuals who had consumed alcohol and previously purchased coupon booklets or vouchers for these rights. Nearly 1,500 booklets were sold between 1995 and 1998, and 2,000 rides were registered to the program. The effectiveness was questionable as awareness of the program was low.

Uber and Drunk Driving

The popular and somewhat controversial alternate transportation service Uber reports that one of the benefits is reducing the incidence of intoxicated drivers on the road. Most of the research is not borne out this observation. For instance, a 2016 research review published in the American Journal of Epidemiology failed to find a significant decrease in automobile crashes related to alcohol abuse (and deaths related to automobile crashes with alcohol-impaired drivers) and the availability of driving services such as Uber.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Public Economics reported that there was little evidence of an expanded public transit service on DUI arrests or alcohol-related traffic accidents; however, there was quite a bit of variation in the overall findings. For example, in areas where bars were within walking distance of a transit station, there was an increase in alcohol-related arrests and decreases in DUI arrests, suggesting that in these situations, individuals were prevented from actually driving as a result of being identified as intoxicated.

Finally, according to information provided by the book Drunk Driving: An American Dilemma, the availability of public transportation may have a mild effect on DUI arrests in heavily populated urban areas, but its overall effect is very hard to estimate. Most of the states that have high rates of DUIs have urban cities where taxicabs and buses are readily available, and the states that have lower DUI rates appear to be states that also have significant rural populations; on the other hand, even the states with low rates of DUI arrests have heavily populated urban areas, and states with high rates of DUI arrests have large rural populations.

The relationship between public transportation availability and DUI arrests is probably confounded by numerous factors; however, decreasing the availability of alcoholic beverages and increasing enforcement of DUI laws may have a much greater effect on the number of intoxicated drivers than the availability of public transportation.

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Conclusions Based on the Research Findings

There is quite a bit of variability in the research.  When research studies look at overall effects in groups of participants, they typically endeavor to find statistically significant results. If implementing a ridesharing program or alternative transportation program reduces motor vehicle accident deaths related to alcohol intoxication by a small number, results may not be statistically significant. However, even if one or two lives are saved as a result of such a program, the effect of these programs could be considered to be successful. What is the value or the cost-benefit analysis of saving an innocent life? One could get different answers to this question depending on the person being asked. Posing the question to a relative of an individual who has been killed by a drunk driver would most likely produce a different response than posing the same question to hardcore epidemiologist who are more concerned with the results of an intervention on large groups of individuals.

The research indicates that community-based programs that are implemented on a personal and small-scale level, and advertised effectively, may have some effect in reducing the incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol within those communities. Large programs, such as the availability of public transportation like cabs, train stations, and buses, appear to have less of a group effect. It appears that these programs are most effective when they are targeted at specific groups and in specific situations, such as on weekends, during specific holidays, on college campuses, etc.

Because the figures produced by the CDC regarding the number of individuals who claim to have driven under the influence of alcohol within the prior 30 days is relatively stable over many years, it can be assumed that macro-level programs, such as making public transportation more available or accessible, are probably not going to be of assistance, whereas focused programs that target specific communities or areas may have an important effect.

The problem with implementing these types of programs from a community level is that literally hundreds of thousands of these programs would need to be implemented before a significant overall effect would be observed. In addition, even though the research studies performed by NHTSA on the effects of community-based alternative transportation systems appear positive, they suffer from methodological issues that make it impossible to determine that implementing these community programs caused any changes in DUI arrests, traffic crashes, or traffic fatalities associated with being under the influence of alcohol.

Nonetheless, on an individual basis, it is certainly safe to assume that if one is planning on spending an evening drinking to the point of intoxication, one can save oneself from the potential embarrassment, financial burden, and even the potential risk of being injured, killed, or injuring or killing someone else as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol by making arrangements to have sober transportation. Several potential sources of alternative methods of transportation are outlined below.

  • NHTSA has created a list of assisted transportation programs for individuals who are using alcohol to consider as opposed to driving themselves after drinking.
  • The org website offers a list of national designated drivers associations. One can get a list of designated drivers close to them by selecting their state on the state menu and then selecting their county from the county menu.
  • Sobrio is a smartphone app that can be used to connect college students to designated drivers in their area or on their university campus.
  • Most large urban areas also offer designated driving services and even taxicabs services on holidays. One can do a web search for such local programs.

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