Another weekend has passed, and for some people in Austin that meant tailgating at the UT-LSU game or heading to local bars. Many used ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft to get home, presumably in an effort to avoid drinking and driving. Places like Rainey Street are often clogged at closing time with people looking for their rides.
“I think using an app or using some sort of technology to find a ride instead of driving drunk has been a great resource for people,” said Hailey Bragg, who was in town from East Texas. “It’s been really easy, really accessible and has made a big difference.”
Just how big of a difference has been on the mind of Edgar Barguiarena of Austin.
“A few years ago when rideshare came to Austin, there were claims that DUI arrests would go down, which of course made sense. Does the data back that up?” he asked our ATXplained project.
Barguiarena said he gave up his vehicle a few years ago and now relies on ride-hailing or car-sharing services to get to places he can’t walk to.
“Anecdotally, I had friends, like myself, who completely stopped driving on the weekends, that were exclusively using the ride-share service,” he said. “So from a personal standpoint, I could tell there was obviously a huge drop from people that I knew that would take any kind of risk by drinking and driving.”
Uber and Lyft first came to Austin in 2013, but it wasn’t until October 2014 that the city passed rules allowing their operation. Then in December 2015, the Austin City Council passed a list of new regulations, including requirements for drivers to get fingerprint-based background checks and restrictions on where cars could pick up and drop off passengers. Uber and Lyft found those rules unacceptable and spent millions on a campaign to get them repealed.
The companies pulled out of Austin after voters overwhelmingly rejected their efforts to overturn the regulations. Other services, like Fasten and RideAustin, filled the gap. But Uber and Lyft returned in 2017, after the Texas Legislature passed a law pre-empting local restrictions on ride-hailing services.
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Barguiarena said he remembers ride-sharing companies and local law enforcement pointing to statistics that showed the number of DWI arrests in Austin declined after the companies first started operating here.
“I’m curious, now that they’re back – and it’s been about two or three years since they’ve been back – how has that affected DUI arrests now that we have a larger data size to work with?” he said.
To answer his question, KUT looked at raw arrest data from the Austin Police Department for incidents where DWI was the highest charge between 2013 and 2018. By this measure, arrests dropped by 31.4%. And while there was an initial spike in the months after Uber and Lyft left in 2016, that downward trend resumed even before they came back.
KUT also looked at traffic fatalities involving impaired drivers during that time. Those actually increased from 23 in 2013 to 29 in 2018. The percentage of all traffic fatalities involving impaired drivers also increased from 23% in 2013 to 29% in 2018.
Overall, there were 74 traffic fatalities in 2018, as compared to 75 in 2013. The time period included a spike in traffic fatalities that occurred in 2015, when 102 people were killed on Austin's roads. Factors cited for the increase included speed and distracted driving.
In a statement to KUT, a Lyft spokesperson said “reports have shown than Lyft and its Ride Smart program can help people make better choices before getting behind the wheel.” But the results are mixed when it comes to studies looking at this issue across the country.
One study by economics professors Angela Dills and Sean Mulholland at Western Carolina University found that ride-sharing does make a difference when it comes to drunk driving.
“What we find is that when Uber comes to a location we find arrests for DUIs decline and we find that traffic fatalities decline after Uber comes to a location,” Dills said. “The effects grow larger the longer Uber is there, so the cities that you're able to see Uber persisting for a longer period of time are finding bigger effects.”
But another study, co-authored by University of California-Davis associate professor Noli Brazil and University of Oxford professor David Kirk, found Uber had no significant impact on drunken driving fatality rates.
“The research since we published this paper, which was about three years ago, the one thing that has emerged is that it's not a simple yes or no answer,” Brazil said. “Does Uber decrease drunk driving fatality rates?" There are a number of factors that might have an impact in some cities but not in others, he said.
Brazil and Kirk’s study looked at an earlier period than Dills and Muholland’s study. Brazil said he's looking at more recent years.
“We're also trying to parse out this black box,” Brazil said. “It seems to be that on average, Uber may not have an effect, but it might have an effect on certain cities versus others.”
So while it's clear in Austin that DWI-related arrests have dropped in the years since ride-hailing came to town, it’s hard to say whether those services are the only reason. Other factors may include stepped-up efforts by police, changing societal attitudes about drinking and driving, or even where people live in relation to where they go out.
We took our findings back to Barguiarena, who said he still believes it’s better to have the apps in Austin than not.
“Either way, in this specific regard, they’re having some positive influence, which is good. It’s kinda what you expect, especially understanding you’re using this service a lot more as well, and you’re one of the people off that road,” he said. “It’s good to kind of see that bearing out.”
Got a tip? Email Samuel King at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @SamuelKingNews.