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Are ride-hailing business cutting down on DUIs and making the roads safer for all of us?

Over the last few years, there have been conflicting bodies of research examining the impact of ride-hailing services on drunk driving rates and related crashes and deaths.

SAINT LOUIS – You take them to the airport, to sporting events and hopefully when you’re going to be drinking.

Ride-hailing services available on your phone, like Uber and Lyft, have transformed the way we all get around. But are they also saving lives?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 29 people in the United States die every day in crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. That breaks down to one death every 50 minutes.

Meantime, over the last few years, there have been conflicting bodies of research examining the impact of ride-hailing services on drunk driving rates and related crashes and deaths.

Some studies, including one by Uber and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, attempt to show that ride-hailing is cutting down on DUIs and making the roads safer for all of us. However, others take a more critical approach, arguing that there’s not enough evidence to make such a claim.

So the 5 On Your Side I-Team wanted to see what the impact is for St. Louis. And part of what we found is that it’s a deeply personal issue for at least one Uber driver.

“I’ve driven over 2,000 people in 13 months,” said Amy Trost of Swansea.

The mother of four and her husband both drive full-time for Uber, splitting their shifts between during the day and the overnight hours in downtown St. Louis and the surrounding metro.

It’s a job that Trost said comes with a rotating cast of characters, some of whom are more spirited than others.

“You never know where you’re going to end up going or who you’re picking up. A lot of them have been drinking,” she said.

But it’s those passengers who represent an opportunity for Trost.

“I’ve had many passengers get in and thank me for picking them up because they’re in no shape to drive. They specifically tell me they won’t drink and drive because this service is so easy,” she explained. “They always tell me it’s no worth it and that’s even before I tell them about my mom.”

Her mom, in many ways, is the reason she drives and why she opens her heart to so many passengers.

“It was in December of 1984. I’ll never forget it. December 16th,” Trost remembered. “She was walking down Route 161 in Illinois. She stepped off the median, and when she stepped off, a drunk driver hit her. She was hit so hard, he killed her on impact.”

Trost was just 1 at the time, meaning she grew up never really knowing her mom.

“I just don’t want what happened to us to happen to another family. I have four kids who will never meet their grandma,” she explained. “It can be completely avoided by pushing a button on app.”

And as it turns out, Trost and thousands of other area ride-sharing drivers might just be helping to cut down on the number of drunk drivers getting behind the wheel.

“My why for this job is not just a full-time job. My why is to keep people safe,” she said.

In states like California and cities like Seattle, Uber specifically takes credit for reducing DUIs and DUI-related crashes. The company also has shown in places like Chicago and Miami that, unsurprisingly, calls for service go up around the same time that bars and restaurants that alcohol close.

Trost said that makes sense. “You can either get in a car intoxicated and kill someone possibly, or you can push a button and someone can come get you.”

So what about St. Louis?

According to St. Louis Police, here are the numbers available for reported DUIs in the city over the last five years.

  • 2013 239
  • 2014 171
  • 2015 183
  • 2016 148
  • 2017 117
  • 2018 year-to-date 106

Pay specific attention to what happened in 2015, the year Uber became mainstream in St. Louis and 2017, when Lyft arrived in the city. Reported DUI incidents fell overall by more than 50 percent.

“It’s kind of like what we call blinding flash of the obvious. It’s obvious it’s having a positive effect,” said Dr. Ray Mundy with the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Mundy is the Director Emeritus for the Center for Transportation Studies. He believes the impact of ride-hailing, or the so-called “Uber effect”, on drunk driving is inflated.

“They like to say they’re the cause of the trend, but statistically it hasn’t been proven all that well,” he said.

Mundy said Uber and Lyft certainly are helping to make the roads safer, but that they don’t deserve all the credit either.

“The problem is you can’t separate their activity in a marketplace from a taxicab and the general trend of reduced drunk driving,” he argued. “You can say there’s correlation in the marketplace but you can’t say there’s causation.”

Meantime, back out on the open road, Trost said it’s obvious to her.

“This technology, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should drink and drive,” she said.

She’s convinced that sharing her story and her ride-hailing service are helping keep other families from feeling the same pain that landed her in the driver’s seat.

“When you lose a loved one to drinking and driving, it changes your whole life for the rest of your life,” Trost said.

For context, data obtained by 5 On Your Side also shows that in St. Louis, the number of DUI-related crashes and deaths have remained stable over the last five years. Police also stated that while ride-hailing has helped cut down on drunk driving incidents, extra patrols and enforcement targeting impaired drivers have also had an impact.

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