Are Ride Shares Adding to the Traffic Fatality Problem?

By: Bridget Clerkin December 26, 2018
Although Uber and Lyft disagree with its findings, a new study has linked the increase in ride share usage to traffic fatalities.
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About 10 years ago, a little-known company called Uber started offering on-demand rides in Silicon Valley. This kicked off a rise so meteoric that even the jaded-to-overnight-success Bay Area was taken by surprise.

A few years later, another dramatic ascent began to emerge: the climbing death toll on American roadways.

Authors of a newly published study weren’t surprised at all, with their report concluding that the two phenomenon are most likely linked.

Conducted by professors at Rice University and the University of Chicago, the study finds that the burst of ridesharing onto the scene is “associated” with an increase of fatal motor vehicle accidents by a margin of 2-3%.

Still, not everyone was satisfied with the results, including some of the world’s biggest ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. Both argued that the study was unsound in its analysis, failing to take a number of important factors into account.

What They Found

The study’s authors started with a group of indisputable facts provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): the annual roadway fatality rate the federal agency is tasked with compiling each year.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the figure began to dramatically drop, and it finally bottomed out in 2010, when there were 32,885 deaths on the road.

Yet, it was at that point—just a year after Uber launched—that the downward trend began to plateau. And just 5 years later, the grisly statistic was reaching record-breaking heights, with the jump between 2014 and 2015 alone marking the largest single-year uptick in roadway fatalities in half a century.

What they found was that the introduction of ride sharing to an area coincided with a dramatic rise in vehicle miles traveled—and also in fatal accident rates.

The authors compared those numbers against the rise of the ride shares, tracking when major companies made their start in cities across the country and checking those timelines against those cities’ subsequent accident rates and vehicle miles traveled.

What they found was that the introduction of ride sharing to an area coincided with a dramatic rise in vehicle miles traveled—and also in fatal accident rates.

Controlling for factors like population, income, and population density, the report states that—across the board—there was about a 3% uptick in the deadly crashes once ride hailing apps hit a given city, with the wrecks happening more frequently “throughout the week, on weekends, at night, and on weekend nights.” A correlation between a rise in pedestrian deaths was also found.

The study further notes that the rideshare phenomenon is linked to about a 3% increase in new car registrations, which hit particularly hard in cities traditionally more reliant upon public transportation. This hinted at one of the causes behind the dwindling number of riders opting for public transit across the country.

Shades of Gray

Still, execs at Uber and Lyft were unimpressed, with spokespeople for both companies noting that each goes out of their way to promote greater safety on the road. Uber’s representative went on to call the report “deeply flawed.”

Indeed, the study’s own authors say that the analysis is “unlikely to fully explain the reversal of accident rate trends in recent years.” And a number of other factors not included in the evaluation could also contribute to the problem.

Distracted driving has been on the rise for years, with 2015’s record-setting accident rate alone including at least 3,196 fatal car wrecks and 3,477 deaths attributed directly to the issue. The decades-old scourge of drunk driving has also seen a recent revival, responsible for 28% of all roadway fatalities in 2016, which was a 1.7% increase from the previous year.

And the NHTSA, when explaining the recent climb in the traffic death toll, pointed to a far less obvious source: the booming economy.

Lower unemployment rates are traditionally linked with higher roadway fatality rates, as they tend to both add more vehicles to the daily commute and give more people the resources to hit the road recreationally.

In its closing, the study notes that its results should also be considered “short-term” in nature, as they attempt to explain a still-very-recent phenomenon. Long-term results of ride sharing could see statistics shift in completely new directions, possibly even leading to a net reduction of drivers—and accidents—on the road one day, the report suggests.

And in the very-recent term, it seems at least a few of the factors contributing to the roadway death rate have been addressed, with 2017 seeing the number dip for the first time in years.

Hopefully, that downward trend will only continue, whatever the driving force behind the problem may be.

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