For years transportation safety officials have encouraged impaired drivers to find a sober ride home — be it designating a driver, catching a cab or riding the bus. Another option became available in 2009, when transportation network companies (TNCs) first appeared.
TNCs provide on-demand taxi-like transportation via self-dispatched independent drivers. Riders summon drivers through a smartphone application that accepts fare payments on behalf of the driver. Uber and Lyft are two examples of this innovative approach to supplementing traditional taxi services or providing new options in areas where taxis are not available.
In a project titled Transportation Network Companies and Impaired Riders: Reducing Impaired Driving Through Passive Transportation, Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) researchers are exploring the use of TNCs by impaired individuals. Preliminary findings suggest that impaired people are using TNCs rather than driving. What’s more, the core TNC ridership represents the same segment of the population most likely to participate in impaired driving. According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, in 2013, the average age of impaired drivers involved in a fatal crash was 36 years old. In the same year, 21 year olds were the age group most frequently involved in fatal crashes. Among those over the age of 18, the most common age group served by TNCs is 25 to 34 years old.
TTI Associate Transportation Researcher Zachary Elgart explains: “We know that impaired people are using these TNCs to safely get home, but we’re unsure of the decision process that results in those individuals choosing TNCs. For example, do people arrange all their travel for a night on the town with a TNC in advance? That’s what we’re looking at with this project.”
The growth of the industry is also what makes TNCs a potential alternative to other transportation modes. Uber, one of the largest TNCs, serves 382 cities in more than 60 different countries worldwide. Lyft is available in 206 U.S. cities, and there are many other companies that serve other areas.
Researchers will conduct focus groups to obtain information regarding people’s knowledge and use of TNCs. The groups will be held in College Station, Austin and Houston, and are a little different than those for a typical research project.
“We’re planning on recruiting participants in areas with a high concentration of bars and restaurants. We want to make sure we’re reaching our target audience,” says TTI Research Scientist Eva Shipp. “The surest way to do that is to go to the source.”
The project will also look at programmatic and policy concepts that encourage more people to choose options other than driving their own vehicle to make it home safely after a night out drinking. One such example is part of Austin’s Get Home Safe campaign. With proper documentation, the city will wave the fee of a parking ticket if the individual chooses another mode of transportation to get home, instead of deciding to drive after he or she has been drinking.
Another example of policies that incentivize impaired people to use TNCs is providing a discounted rate to those who use TNCs going to and from their destination. So far these discounts have typically been offered through a partnership with an alcohol company or professional sports team/league and a TNC. One such partnership is Miller Light Free Rides. The program was launched in September 2015 to provide free or discounted rides to prevent drunk driving. The initiative involves several modes of travel including Uber, transit and taxis. According to the website, the program has provided more than 4.8 million free rides since it launched.
“The end goal is to get would-be impaired drivers to make an alternate travel choice. Once we discover why people are choosing TNCs over other modes, companies or transportation agencies can use incentives to encourage that behavior,” says Elgart. “Maybe that means making TNCs more accessible to take round-trip.”