Designated Driver: Uber and MADD Team Up

By Neville Elder 05/22/15

Memorial Day driving could be safer this year, due to an unlikely alliance.


According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “Drunk driving deaths spike during the holidays. Every 51 minutes, someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-impaired driving crash. Be responsible—don’t drink and drive. If you plan to drink, choose a sober designated driver before going out.”

As the Memorial Day holiday weekend approaches there will be more traffic on the roads, and more people will make the devastating decision to drink and drive.  

The concept of the "designated driver" began in Scandinavia. It was adopted as a formal program by Hiram Walker and Sons, the distillers of Canadian Club Whiskey in Canada, in the 1970s and became a buzzword in the North America shortly after. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) became the self-declared champion of the designated driver in the 1980s. But designated driver programs, when instigated by groups of people drinking, had its problems. If the driver wasn’t designated the driver before travel, often the designated driver didn’t stay sober. Equally, if complete abstinence is not required, someone would end up driving drunk.

Several volunteer programs across the country focus on college students' weekends and the excellent HERO program vows “ register one million designated drivers and make having a designated driver be as automatic as wearing a seatbelt.”

Now 35 years old, MADD, the support and advocacy group for the victims of drunk driving, has long been aware that young people between the ages of 21 and 24 are most at risk of being involved in a fatal crash involving alcohol. The group aged 25-34 are the next highest.

Incidentally, the two age groups most at risk, are the most tech savvy. The Pew Research center says: “Younger adults—regardless of income level—are very likely to be smartphone owners.”

So is there an app for that? You bet there is. Uber’s wildly successful 2009 launch into the closed shop of private transportation caused a storm of protest from taxi drivers across the country. But the "ride-sharing" service that connects independent, non-commercial drivers with their own cars with people in need of a ride has been hugely popular with an urban generation raised on technology and the convenience of the Internet. As the taxi app that crowdsources private drivers quickly became a ubiquitous part of modern life, it became a no brainer that Uber (and other ride-sharing start-ups, Lyft and Sidecar) would be the first choice for getting home late at night from a party or bar.

Ride-sharing, for MADD, couldn’t have come at a better time. And both Uber and Lyft have made donations to the charity through the use of promo codes. Over the July 4th weekend in 2014, they began their partnership by giving $1 ($10 for new riders) for every ride taken between 6am on July 4 and 6am on July 5. The cooperation continued over the New Year’s holiday.

But was the new app making a genuine dent in DUI deaths? And was it changing attitudes toward drunk driving?

Back in 2014, Uber looked at publicly available data on DUI arrests in the time before and after Uber’s Seattle entrance in 2013. They noticed a drop in DUI arrests in the city.

Inspired to learn if their business was having a genuine impact on public safety in other markets, they looked at Pittsburgh and Miami and noticed a temporary and unusual spike in requests for drivers at closing time in the two very different cities. Satisfyingly, that’s exactly how it looked. Coincidence? Maybe, but in a follow-up look at requests in Chicago, they dug a little deeper—looking into the distance of a request from a bar or restaurant, and sure enough, 45.8% of rides requested came from or near these locations during the peak drinking hours of 10pm and 3am, compared to 28.9% at off-peak times.

But these were only small slices of time, a year at most, and not necessarily hard proof of a change in the habits of young drinkers.

In January 2015, Uber teamed up with MADD to look at California. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) covers the entire state’s highway and county road system. Its publicly available data on DUI crashes, gives a snapshot of activity from across approximately 2,335,000 miles of paved roadways. Uber used this information and looked at the time when the "Uber X" ride-sharing model was introduced into various parts of the state. Uber X is the basic service, where private individuals share their car to people in need of a ride.

As they hoped, in their report, “More options. Shifting mindsets. Driving better choices,” alcohol-related crashes were fewer in parts of the state where Uber X had been introduced—particularly in the key group of those under 30. They conclude:

“...We believe there is a direct relationship between the presence of ‘Uber X’ in a city and the amount of drunk-driving crashes involving younger populations.”

Good news, of course, but what about the attitudes of these young drivers? Were they changing? MADD wanted to see if part of their mission: “to create major social change in the attitudes and behavior of Americans toward drunk driving,” was being accomplished. They commissioned a survey to find out how seriously people wanted to end drunk driving.

“The results of our survey show that the availability of additional, reliable transportation options is shifting mindsets and driving people to make better, safer choices."

"88% of respondents over the age of 21 agree with the statement: 'Uber has made it easier for me to avoid driving home when I’ve had too much to drink.'”

"78% of people say that since Uber launched in their city, their friends are less likely to drive after drinking."

"57% of transportation network service users agreed with the statement: 'Without Uber, I’d probably end up driving more after drinking at a bar or restaurant.’”

And after hearing about Uber’s impact on drunk driving already, 93% of people would recommend a friend take Uber instead of driving, if the friend had been drinking.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the forgotten victory in the War on Drugs and how the DEA under Michele Leonahrt was rotten to the core.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.