There’s a phrase that drivers from Uber, Lyft and other rideshare businesses use when talking of ways to maximize their earning potential: follow the alcohol.
In other words, target areas with clubs, restaurants and bars on Friday and Saturday nights and you’re sure to get plenty of passengers, as well as the higher rates that kick in when demand rises.
It’s a reminder that the party crowd is currently fueling much of the popularity of these services, which bring a car and driver to your side at the touch of a smartphone app. And it also points out a welcome side effect of the business model — safer roads.
A 2015 study conducted by Uber in partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) — billed as a first-of-its-kind look at ridesharing’s impact on attitudes and behaviors surrounding drunk driving — revealed some encouraging numbers:
- Alcohol-related crashes in California were down 6.5%, or nearly 60 per month, among those 30 and younger following the launch of UberX (its economy service for four or fewer passengers).
- Uber’s entry into the Seattle market corresponded with a 10% drop in DUI arrests.
- Wherever Uber operates, demand for service peaks right about the time the bars close.
- Of those surveyed, 93% said they’d recommend Uber to a friend who was drinking, and 88% agreed with the statement that “Uber has made it easier to avoid driving home when I’ve had too much to drink.”
All this is good news at a time when an estimated 28 people die daily in drunk driving accidents.
In short, the study concluded, “Uber is more than just a convenient transportation option — it’s also a powerful tool in the fight to reduce the rate of drunk driving crashes.”
Even if you look at the study with a cynical eye (it was, after all, backed by the company that stands to benefit from its message), it’s not hard to believe that services that are convenient, reasonably priced and, yes, hipper than many other ways of getting home after drinking are having a positive effect.
“In the past you had people who would go out and they would drive themselves because there weren’t a whole lot of other options. But now, at this price point, it’s such a no-brainer,” explained Harry Campbell, who walked away from a full-time job as an aerospace engineer with Boeing to blog and podcast full time about ridesharing issues at TheRideShareGuy.com. It’s a business he started while a part-time rideshare driver himself (something he still does on occasion) as a way to fill an informational void for the rideshare community.
Why risk killing yourself or someone else, after all, when a few taps on your phone gets you a driver, pays for their services in a cashless transaction and allows you to rate them when it’s done — a strong incentive for the driver to provide you with quality service.
And then there’s the DUI factor. “In addition to the impact that a DUI has on your personal and professional life, the monetary savings of ridesharing as opposed to even risking a DUI is huge,” Campbell said. “It doesn’t take a genius to realize that you can just take Uber thousands of times and you’ll probably still come out ahead.” Campbell noted that he uses Uber in this reference as a generic term for ridesharing services, as much of the public does these days. At the moment at least, Uber is to ridesharing what Kleenex is to tissues.
Multiple Routes for Safe Travel
Uber may be the best-known rideshare business, but it’s not the only game in town. In addition to Lyft and a variety of regional companies, there’s also BeMyDD (the DD stands for designated driver), which tweaks the Uber model by providing only the driver while you provide the car. That translates to savings and flexibility, explained Alexa Milkovich, the company’s VP of marketing. “You can go to as many places as you want throughout the evening. You can pick up friends, you can drop off friends, and it’s just an hourly rate.”
BeMyDD also offers a “safety net” service, designed for those who realize after they are already out that they need a ride home. In this case, two drivers show up — one to drive the person home, the other to drive their car home. The service makes up about 30% of the company’s business at the moment, Milkovich said, and removes one of the key incentives to drive intoxicated — a person’s reluctance to leave their car behind. When researching drivers’ needs in the early days of the company, Milkovich explained, she would often go to driver intervention programs for those who had received DUIs and ask them why they had risked getting behind the wheel. “Ninety-five percent of them would raise their hand and say, ‘It’s because I needed my car home.’ ”
Some communities and businesses are also getting on board with the concept, doing what they can to encourage people to use ridesharing services rather than take a chance on driving impaired. In October, Reuters reported, a New Jersey town struggling with skyrocketing DUI arrests partnered with Uber and BeMyDD to provide free rides for drinkers from a variety of establishments that serve alcohol. And the liquor distributor Brown-Forman has teamed with BeMyDD to promote responsible alcohol use, a partnership that includes providing free BeMyDD rides on select dates as part of a 24-city tour.
And it’s not just alcohol users who are being targeted. On the state of Colorado’s website, visitors will find coupon codes for ridesharing discounts aimed at those who may be trying the state’s legal marijuana while in the area.
Add up all the options and it comes down to this: There have never been fewer excuses to drive under the influence.
The Missing Element: Responsible Drinking
While it seems clear that ridesharing is contributing to more responsible driving, it’s less clear what it’s doing for responsible drinking.
Hundreds of thousands of rideshare drivers come to his site each week, Campbell said, and many of them comment about passengers who feel that because they know they’ll have a ride, they are free to get as drunk as they like. The result can be trouble for both the passenger and the driver.
Beyond the sheer dangers of binge drinking, passengers may not realize they’re not getting a babysitter along with that ride. As a result, if they are too drunk to negotiate the part of the journey home that comes after leaving the car, it’s easy for them to stumble into harm’s way. Drivers, on the other hand, can find themselves dealing with unruly and sometimes aggressive customers. In a recent incident caught by a dashboard camera, a Southern California Uber driver was shown being assaulted by an apparently intoxicated passenger.
“It’s definitely a concern for drivers,” Campbell said, “and I suspect there may be a few more incidents like this before people really start noticing that, hey, Uber is doing great things in reducing DUIs, but at the same time, it’s almost promoting this subculture of going out and drinking as much as you want with no repercussions.”
Sarah, a university student in California’s Bay Area, who asked that her last name not be used, said ridesharing is hugely popular among her set but agreed it can spark a sense that it’s OK to overindulge. “Also now when we go out, everyone can drink. We don’t have to have a designated driver. It’s probably not the smartest thing, but it’s nice because nobody has to be the one sitting in the corner watching everybody else have a good time.” For rideshare drivers, however, it means there is less likelihood they can count on at least one person in the party to be sober and able to take responsibility for the group.
Campbell sees a need for, at the very least, the type of disclaimers for ridesharing that you see at the end of liquor commercials. “Alcohol makers can’t just advertise their products, they also have to throw in that caveat that you can enjoy this product but you also have to do it responsibly. And we haven’t really seen that at all with Uber yet. In fact, Uber has kind of positioned itself as the alternative to drunk driving. But we haven’t really seen them take any of the responsibility, as far as, hey, you also need to keep in mind that just because you have an Uber, you can’t go out and get blasted. You still need to be responsible.”
One process already in place in most rideshare services that can act as an incentive for passenger sobriety is the rating system: It’s not just the passengers who rate the drivers on a scale of one to five, drivers rate the passengers too. And drivers can see this rating before they agree to pick someone up. This means that if a passenger is intoxicated and earns a low rating due to their behavior, they may not be able to find a driver to pick them up in future. As one Uber driver noted on the question-and-answer site Quora, “If your rating is below 4.6, good luck getting a ride from an experienced driver.”
‘Making Better Choices’
Even with issues of passenger overindulgence and the growing pains that come with a young and rapidly booming industry, ridesharing’s big picture is an encouraging one. Never has it been easier to be socially responsible and safe on the roads. No longer do drinkers have to hope their designated driver has resisted temptation, or keep their fingers crossed that they can find a taxi, or wonder how they are going to get their car the next day. Options abound. Uber officials summed it up this way upon release of their joint study with MADD: “When empowered with more transportation options like Uber, people are making better choices that save lives.”
And it doesn’t hurt, Campbell said, that ridesharing is “kind of the cool thing to do right now.”
Uber and MADD Report
New Jersey town first in U.S. to use Uber to curb drunken driving
Colorado Department of Transportation: Safety