Uber and Lyft Are Back: Is Austin's Drunk Driving Problem Solved?

The short answer: No – not quite. The longer answer: The return of Uber and Lyft to Austin and its already competitive ride-hailing market in May 2017 should improve – but far from solve – the serious problem of drunk driving accidents in the city. The availability of safe, affordable transportation options in Austin is only one slice of a very complex issue.

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Why Did Uber and Lyft Leave Austin in the First Place?

If you need to be brought up to speed, Uber and Lyft actually came to Austin in the spring of 2014 and started to operate in November 2014 – a month after they received permission from the Austin City Council. Meanwhile, the Council worked on permanent rules that would apply to the ride-hailing companies.

Then, in December 2015, the Council passed an ordinance that required ride-hailing companies to conduct fingerprint background checks of their drivers – much like the city’s taxi companies do. Uber and Lyft opposed the rule – and backed their opposition with a lot of money.

The two companies funded a petition drive and campaign in favor of Proposition 1 – a ballot initiative that would have thrown out the Council’s fingerprint requirement. The companies spent nearly $9 million combined on the effort, The Austin American-Statesman reports. However, they lost. On May 9, 2016, Austin voters rejected Prop 1 by a 56 to 44 percent margin.

Two days after the ballot measure failed, Uber and Lyft both halted their operations in Austin. The companies turned their focus to the state legislature and spent an estimated $5.5 million more on lobbying efforts, Fortune reports. The companies’ push led to House Bill 100, which establishes statewide regulations for “transportation network companies” in Texas and nullifies local ride-hailing regulations such as those in Austin. The new statewide regulations do not require fingerprint background checks.

Uber and Lyft resumed operations in Austin on May 29, 2017 – the same day that Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law. However, while they were away, the Austin ride-hailing market changed.

Return of Uber and Lyft Heats Up Competitive Austin Market

As The Economist notes, the departure of Uber and Lyft from the Austin market in May 2016 opened the opportunity for many smaller companies to take their place such as Boston-based Fasten and a local non-profit, RideAustin. In order to regain their footing in the new ridesharing landscape, Uber and Lyft offered a slew of incentives such as discounted rides.

A report by The American-Statesman indicates that the return of Uber and Lyft quickly proved to be good for riders’ wallets. Some of the ride-hailing companies, like RideAustin, needed to drop their prices in order to stay competitive.

The cost of ride-hailing is important. If people cannot afford to use Uber, Lyft or other services, it can lead to them finding other ways to get around after they have been spent a night on the town drinking – including trying to drive themselves.

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‘Correlation’ Between Ride-Hailing Services, Drunk Driving Declines

If the return of Uber and Lyft to Austin helps to makes ride-hailing services more available and, due to low fares, more accessible to residents, then recent Austin Police Department (APD) data indicates that the city may very well see a drop in drunk driving crashes. During the campaign for Proposition 1, Uber and Lyft actually touted that drunk driving crashes in Austin fell by 23 percent after the introduction of ride-hailing services to the city.

Politifact checked that claim by looking at APD data and found it to be “mostly true” (even after the APD later changed its DWI crash statistics). Politifact found that 823 DWI crashes occurred in Austin in the 17 months before Uber started to operate in the city in June 2014. The number of DWI crashes fell to 675, or 18 percent fewer, in the 17 months that followed June 2014.

“It’s worth repeating that Uber is referring to correlations between ride-sharing’s availability and collisions, not necessarily causation,” the fact-checking website noted.

Several studies have also looked at the “correlation” between ride-hailing services and decreases in alcohol-related accidents. The findings have been mixed.

For instance, in January 2015, Temple University researchers found a 3.6 percent to 5.6 percent decrease in drunk driving accident-related deaths in California cities where Uber had entered the market between 2009 and 2014.

Another study by Providence College and Stonehill College researchers analyzed data from 150 cities and counties across the country where Uber was available between 2010 and 2013. Those areas saw a 6 percent decline in total fatal traffic accidents – but an insignificant change in fatal alcohol-related crashes.

More recently, the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study by University of Pennsylvania researchers which concluded that “ride-hailing services reduce drunk-driving crashes in some cities.” The researchers analyzed data from four cities where Uber had launched, ceased and then resumed services: San Antonio, Las Vegas, Reno and Portland, Oregon. While alcohol-related crashes dropped in cities such as Portland and San Antonio, they did not fall in Reno, the study found.

“Relationships between ridesharing and motor vehicle crashes differ between cities over time and may depend on specific local characteristics,” the researchers noted.

Based on the above data and studies, it is safe to say that Uber and Lyft should help – to some degree – to reduce drunk driving crashes in Austin. No exact causal link has been established between the availability of ride-hailing services and declines in drunk-driving crashes. However, the bottom line is that ride-hailing services give drivers an option. They can get a sober ride home instead of trying to drive home while impaired. And that can only help.

As the Austin Police Department’s Richard Mabe told CBS Austin, “We cannot directly attribute one mode of transportation as being better than the other.” However, he added, “If there’s Uber, Lyft, taxi cabs, whatever other means – a designated driver in your group – if that’s a safe mode for you to get home … that’s what we’re behind.”

Transportation Is Only Part of Austin’s Drunk Driving Problem

The reality is that some drivers – regardless of whether they have a ride-hailing option – will still choose to drive drunk. They will do so even though they know it is dangerous and against the law in Texas and across the country. In fact, the most recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics show that more people die in drunk driving crashes in Texas than in any other state.

One study from several years ago found that “repeat DWI offenders are at a substantially higher risk of fatal crash involvement” than drivers without a prior DWI conviction. Why would someone with a DWI already on their record get behind the wheel and endanger not only their own life but the lives of everyone else on or near the road?

Thus, in addition to the availability of transportation options such as ride-hailing services, addressing the drunk driving problem requires cities and states to address many other issues as well, including addiction, increased law enforcement and the need for tougher penalties on repeat DWI offenders that keeps them off the road.