While police don’t believe there’s any direct correlation, data indicates the number of arrests for driving under the influence (DUI) plummeted after ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft became available in Mobile and have stayed down since.
Following a news conference announcing the arrival of Uber on June 11, 2015, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson hailed the first ride the service provided locally. That same year, the Mobile Police Department (MPD) made 814 DUI arrests, down from 858 recorded in 2014.
However, in all of 2016 — a full year into Uber’s operation locally — the number of DUI arrests was cut by more than half to 408. After Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, set up shop in the Port City in March 2017, the number of DUI arrests fell to just 291 — a 64 percent drop from 2014 to 2017.
Despite the anecdotal evidence, there’s no way to definitively prove ride-hailing is the reason the number of DUI arrests Mobile has seen over the past four years has gone down. Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste said he isn’t sold on the connection just yet, either.
As Uber and Lyft have continued to grow ridership locally, the MPD has also ramped up enforcement efforts against impaired drivers using federal pass-through grants from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).
“Over the last few years, we’ve increased our presence out in the field, specifically with our efforts towards DUIs through these grants,” Battiste said. “Historically, traffic units would have been the only ones working in this area, but by shifting to patrol units looking to get overtime we’ve been able to get more officers out on the street and get them out at different hours.”
Speaking with Lagniappe, Battiste said MPD enforces DUIs by targeting areas impaired drivers are believed to frequent — nightclubs, special events and similar places. He said the department no longer uses “roadblocks” because it’s required to anncouce them in advance.
“That has kind of made them ineffective, and historically, it has also caused us to get questions like ‘Why do you have them in this area of town versus another?” and it becomes an issue of ‘Are you targeting lower-income communities?’ and we don’t want to do that,” he said. “We want to deal with the offenders and we are out looking for those signs. We try to focus, based on what our intelligence shows us, on where we’re getting the greatest number of DUI reports.”
It’s worth noting MPD has been criticized in the past for targeting certain “high-crime areas” with “safety checkpoints” over various constitutional concerns.
No matter the actual reason for the drop in local DUIs, the assertion that ride-hailing might have an impact has been explored in other areas as well. In 2018, news reports emerged after Louisville, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta and other cities saw similar dips in DUIs.
There have been a few scholarly studies on the subject, but they’ve had mixed results. Some attributed 30-35 percent drops in DUI arrests and fatalities to ride-hailing apps, while others found there was a correlation but not enough evidence to say ride-hailing was a direct cause.
In 2017, a research team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania evaluated the specific effects of these services within certain cities and found a correlation between Uber and a decline in drunk driving, but the level of those decreases varied.
Without asking them, it’s impossible for researchers to know why individuals choose to use a ride-hailing service or whether intoxication plays into those decisions. Uber does have a specific cleaning fee for “vomit” and another one for “significant amounts of bodily fluids,” though.
No matter what customers’ reasons are, Uber and Lyft have both been happy to take some of the credit for the reduction in arrests and fatalities where they operate.
“Our mission is to make it easier for people to get around their cities in a dependent, affordable way. Everyone can benefit from more transportation options, which allow people to make better choices before getting behind the wheel,” Kaitlyn Carl, a communications manager for Lyft, told Lagniappe via email. “One of our rush-hour periods is weekend nights. This speaks to how people are using Lyft to make safer choices on how they get around.”
Carl also noted that, according to Lyft’s 2019 economic impact report, 71 percent of riders say they’d be “more likely to drive under the influence” without the service. The same was true in Atlanta and New Orleans, where 75 percent and 76 percent of riders, respectively, gave the same answer.
Lyft doesn’t currently have data broken down for riders in Alabama or Mobile, specifically, and both companies declined to provide any data on the number of local users in the Mobile Bay area.
Battiste said anything that might be reducing the number of impaired drivers on the road is a good thing, but he hasn’t personally seen the trend of Uber and Lyft having any significant impact. He also noted the number of DUI arrests has often fluctuated.
The number of arrests did take a dip between 2013 and 2014 before Uber was operating locally, though not as significant as the drops that have happened since. Last year, the number of local DUI arrests jumped to 336 from the five-year low of 291 recorded in 2017.
“I don’t know that I personally believe Uber has made the difference, but I don’t have specific data showing that it didn’t, either,” Battiste said. “I think there’s a combination of factors.
Either way, Battiste put drunk drivers on notice that — Uber or no Uber — MPD is going to continue to have officers in the streets at all hours enforcing the laws on the books.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the rate of DUI arrests in Mobile had fallen 33 percent between 2014 and 2017. While the most recent annual data showed rates of DUIs at 33 percent of what they were three years earlier, the actual rate of reduction would be closer to 64 percent.
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