The issue of rideshare companies has always been a hotly contested one. Taxi companies and unions have fought against them from the start, and legally their position has been precarious. Rideshare companies often argue that they are tech companies, not transportation companies (though this argument is not doing so well in EU courts), to avoid licensing and other regulations, but in some jurisdictions, they’ve been banned. In the US, the state of Alaska and the city of Austin have banned companies like Uber.
Ridesharing tech companies and their defenders cite a number of positive effects of their businesses, however. They often mention that their services reduce drunk driving, and while studies do support this in some cities, the effects aren’t uniform. Many also argue that Uber and Lyft are market forces at work — that if taxi companies can’t compete, then maybe they should improve their services. This is a pretty logical philosophy in a capitalist society, though the argument can be made that providing a better service is easy if you’re dodging regulations for an advantage over competitors and that ridesharing companies should be held to the same regulatory standards.
The New Study: Ridesharing Might Not Be Safer
Quite often, when the debate about the status of ridesharing companies comes up, defenders lean on the fact that ridesharing makes the roads safer and is more economically friendly. However, both of these claims are contested.
In October of 2018, a working (and as of yet incomplete) paper from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business claimed to provide evidence that traffic fatalities have increased since the introduction of ridesharing companies.
As reported by the Chicago Sun Times; “The paper’s authors found accidents had decreased in the United States from 1985 to 2010, when the first ride-hailing services launched. Since then, however, the trend has ‘reversed course and increased.’”
The paper has also claimed that rideshare companies have increased, not decreased, traffic congestion and gas consumption, claiming that the companies keep drivers on the road during periods of low demand in order to ensure prompt service. It could very well be that the very things that make rideshares more convenient than taxi competitors are directly making roads more dangerous and increasing the pollution output in major cities.
The companies themselves claim differently and have taken issue with the study. From a certain point of view, their arguments make sense. Lyft auto insurance policies can pay out up to $1 million, and so prioritizing safety would become a matter of good business for ridesharing companies. If there’s one thing we can trust, it’s for a company to try to maximize profits and reduce expenses, and pushing their insurance rates up with big accident payouts is something the companies are likely to want to prevent.
However, the data gathered by the study seems to indicate that the companies are worried more about pickup times than exhausted and overworked drivers who might cause accidents. There could be any number of ways to offset the insurance costs, and one of them might simply be that better uptime drives profits enough to compensate for additional accidents. The companies make almost exclusive use of what’s become known as “the gig economy” — drivers who are effectively freelancers who trade in benefits and deductions for the flexibility to work their own hours.
The problem is that the gig economy causes stress and encourages people to overwork themselves in order to cover the additional personal expenses and taxes associated with being effectively self-employed. Combined with the companies focusing on uptime, this could logically lead to an increase in tired, potentially dangerous drivers on the road. After all, driving while drowsy can be just as dangerous as being under the influence and results in many more accidents than federal estimates, according to NBC news.
Unfortunately, it may be getting more difficult to properly regulate rideshare companies in the interests of public safety. Republican politicians have been steadily working to undo both environmental and labor regulations, which is nothing new, really. Technology outpacing regulation is nothing new either, but if the study proves correct, and rideshare companies are more dangerous for both the environment and people on the road, the rollbacks are unfortunately timed.
The study presents a compelling argument that rideshare companies are in fact having the opposite effect to what they claim: replacing drunk drivers with exhausted ones, and increasing congestion and accidents in the name of swift service. The very thing — convenience — that makes them a force to be reckoned with in the marketplace could be damaging to public health.