Since Uber’s forced exit from Tuscaloosa in 2014, students across campus have lobbied for the ride-share service’s return, which finally came two weeks ago following months of negotiation with the city government.
For many students who have had the luxury of using it outside of Tuscaloosa, Uber is the last word in convenient transportation. Touting itself as the “smartest way around,” Uber functions through an app that sends the user’s location and contact information to the driver and even pays for the ride without any transaction between the rider and driver.
“It’s great because I don’t have to worry about carrying cash with me, because it’s already connected to my card with just the push of a button,” said Kendall Bauerle, a senior majoring in journalism.
But for many, Uber’s benefit goes beyond efficiency.
Much of Uber’s pitch to cities has depended upon its commitment to the safety of its customers and drivers. According to the company’s website, safety measures include safe pickups, estimated times of arrival, immediate driver-rider matching and the lack of a need to carry cash for transportation, factors that are all reliant on its app-based platform.
“Uber’s technology makes it possible to focus on safety for riders and drivers before, during, and after every trip in ways that have never been possible before,” said Uber spokesperson Evangeline George.
As Uber has burgeoned into a staple in the college-aged market, it has established its own reputation as not only the smartest way around, but the safest way home for intoxicated college students.
The University of Alabama has in recent years been on the offensive when it comes to encouraging students to drive sober, implementing AlcoholEdu as a mandatory instruction course for incoming freshmen and providing alternative means of transportation through 348-RIDE, but alcohol-related offenses have continued to climb on campus.
While UAPD does not submit numbers for DUIs specifically in their Clery Act report, according to the 2015 Campus Security Report, UAPD made 25 on-campus arrests and more than 1,200 disciplinary actions and judicial referrals in 2014 for liquor law violations, which often include DUIs.
In its organized push to bring Uber back, the UA Student Government Association continually cited Uber’s potential to curtail DUI arrests as a primary reason to allow it to operate within city limits.
“There’s a lot of drunk driving that happens in Tuscaloosa, not just empirically, but anecdotally,” said Jonathan Hess, former SGA vice president for External Affairs. “You see a face, a mugshot of someone you know who got arrested, and you can see it’s a real problem… DUI is something that happens here, and there was a very clear need for something like Uber.”
For Hess, who campaigned on the promise of bringing ride-sharing back to Tuscaloosa, Uber’s return was not only a win for him in the context of his SGA tenure, but a greater victory for student well being.
“If something presents an equally accessible, safer option, people are going to take it,” Hess said. “You’ve got some people who may have, say, a 25-minute walk from downtown back to their apartment. If they’re not inclined to walk 25 minutes back home, that’s when people say, ‘I don’t care if someone gets hurt, I’m going to drive instead.’ But the idea behind Uber is that all I have to do is pull out my phone and call a ride. It’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s accessible.”
When it comes to things like DUIs, the effect that services like Uber have on lowering incidences of intoxicated driving can be difficult to quantify.
“It’s difficult to look at DUI-related trends and draw specific conclusions about the degree of impact each of these alternatives is having,” said UAPD Police Chief John Hooks. “We know alternatives to drinking and driving save lives, prevent injuries and reduce DUI arrests.”
Uber partnered with advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving for a study in an attempt to substantiate its influence on DUI rates. The report found that following Uber’s launch in certain cities, total DUI arrests of people under the age of 30 decreased, as well as that the incidence of arrest for DUI fell more significantly in areas that had limited transportation options before Uber’s arrival.
Though no studies are yet available for the state of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s monthly crime reports tell a similar tale.
Following Uber’s readmittance to the Birmingham Metro area in January 2016, the total number of DUI arrests from January to July by the UAB Police Department decreased from the totals in 2015 by at least 50 percent in all but one month. In four of those months, UAB PD reported no DUI arrests at all.
One state over, the University of Georgia has found the same trend. Uber came to Athens in 2014, a year in which there were only a reported 80 DUI arrests, a nearly 41 percent drop from the 136 arrests in 2013. By the end of 2015, the number of DUI arrests fell an additional 50 percent.
Looking all the way back to 2009, the average number of DUI arrests after Uber’s arrival fell by 145.3 percent from the pre-Uber years.
While those statistics correlate with Uber’s claims, there are a variety of factors to take into account that could contribute to lessened arrests. UAB, for example, is located in the heart of downtown Birmingham, where traffic dissuades many students from driving personal vehicles and public transportation is more readily available than in a smaller college town like Tuscaloosa. Both UAB and UGA also require alcohol education programs, much like Alabama’s AlcoholEdu, for incoming freshmen.
Regardless of validity, University officials are optimistic about Uber’s potential to discourage students from drunk driving.
“Tuscaloosa should welcome Uber as it definitely has the potential to improve traffic safety by keeping impaired drivers off the streets,” said Rhonda Stricklin, associate director for the UA Center for Advanced Public Safety. “It may not have an immediate effect. It will depend on how quickly the concept is embraced and people begin to utilize the service.
Stricklin added that while correlation in cities like Atlanta doesn’t equate to a definitive influence, Uber offers a viable option for deterring DUIs.
“Uber cannot not necessarily take all the credit for the reduction but they can certainly take some of it,” Stricklin said. “Uber is a viable option that people should consider to avoid driving impaired, for their own safety and the safety of others.”
Despite its current public emphasis on safety, Uber has a questionable history.
The service’s efficacy was frequently called into question as incidents emerged across the country in its early years concerning background checks on drivers. This issue came to a head in Tuscaloosa when in 2014 the Tuscaloosa Police Department arrested an Uber driver for operating a vehicle under a suspended license while in the possession of alcohol and marijuana. Uber was turned out of the city following the arrest.
In other U.S. cities, Uber drivers have been implicated in sexual assault and harassment, DUI, kidnapping and robbery, all of which have contributed to some of the public unease that has driven Uber out of multiple cities.
In response, Uber has bulked up its safety standards, now requiring background checks for all drivers, in addition to improvements to its app, like allowing riders to see a photo and the first name of their driver prior to their arrival.
Like Tuscaloosa, many college towns that previously sent Uber packing within weeks of its arrival have reopened negotiations and are working to clarify not only the city and state regulations at work against ride-sharing, but the public safety concerns as well. Ole Miss saw Uber’s return to Oxford this year on July 1, and Auburn reached an agreement that will allow Uber to operate sometime within the next few weeks.
As for Alabama, students are now free for the foreseeable future to Uber as they please.
“I’ve personally never used Uber, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” said Hannah Coblentz, a junior majoring in nursing. “I like the idea of having a different and new service like Uber to make campus and Tuscaloosa safer. I feel like the more people we have that are able to assist people who need rides could prove to be a good thing.”