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'Better choices:' Some credit ride-sharing services for reducing DUIs

Barbara Schauer stands next to her van, which she uses to drive for ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, in downtown Grand Forks on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Lyft and Uber driver Barbara Schauer checks the apps for ride requests in her parked vehicle outside Brick & Barley on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Barbara Schauer talks about her experiences driving for ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft on Wednesday, July 18, 2018 in downtown Grand Forks. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

The nights are busy for Uber and Lyft driver Barbara Schauer.

She has driven for the popular ride-sharing businesses since they first launched their services early last year in Grand Forks. She said she feels the transportation companies have helped people make smarter decisions when it comes to choosing between driving home drunk and waiting for a ride home.

"A lot of people are telling me they would be driving if it wasn't for (Lyft and Uber)," she said. "You watch them get out of the bar, and they just get right into their car and drive away. And I think, 'No, I'm sitting right here. Don't do that.' "

It's hard to tell if ride-sharing services are the reason DUI arrests are down in Grand Forks, said Lt. Derik Zimmel of the Grand Forks Police Department. The department arrested 135 drivers for driving under the influence last year, down from 157 in 2016 and 202 in 2015, according to statistics from the North Dakota Attorney General's Office.

As of June 30, the agency has issued 74 drunk driving citations this year, slightly down from 84 arrests during the same time period last year.

More options that reduce cost and wait times can make the choice to get a ride home more appealing, Zimmel said.

"It's a pretty logical choice for someone to spend a few bucks on a ride as opposed to taking the chance of ending up in jail," Zimmel said.

Waiting game

Before Uber and Lyft arrived, taxi drivers sometimes were overwhelmed with the high volume of requests, UND Police Capt. Tracy Meidinger said. Some customers would wait more than two hours for a ride home after bars closed, Zimmel said.

"It was to the point where to get some people out of there, especially on cold nights, there were times where officers gave people a ride home just to get them out of the area, to get them someplace safe and warm," Zimmel said.

North Dakota winters can bring subzero temperatures at night. When bar patrons have to leave at closing time and they have to wait a long time for a ride, they may choose to walk or drive, Zimmel said.

"Neither one of them is an appealing option," he said.

There has been a noticeable change in the time people have to wait for a ride after bars close, Zimmel and Schauer said. Schauer was a taxi driver before Uber and Lyft came to Grand Forks.

"Maybe we are doing something good," she said.

In a 2014 national survey, almost 90 percent of participants 21 years and older said Uber made it easier to avoid driving after drinking, while 57 percent said they probably would drive drunk without the ride-sharing service, according to an article published by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which partners with Uber to raise awareness on the dangers of drunk driving.

"By providing a reliable ride at the push of a button, no matter the time or place, Uber empowers people to make better, safer choices, especially when it comes to drinking and driving," Erin Guthrie, Uber's Midwest general manager, said in a statement. "We've seen time and again when people have a reliable and accessible alternative to get home safe, they choose not to drink and drive."

Lyft did not return multiple messages seeking comment for this story.

More options

Lyft and Uber also have become more popular on UND's campus, University Police Lt. Danny Weigel said. UND officers arrested 69 people last year for drunk driving, up slightly from the 2016 count of 66 but down from the 2015 tally of 78, according to attorney general's statistics. As of July 23, UND Police had issued 33 DUI citations.

University officers have had less alcohol-related contacts since Uber and Lyft have come to Grand Forks, Meidinger said.

"I think they are making better choices," he said.

The university's police department is active in patrols and educating students on the consequences of driving drunk, Weigel said, adding young drivers are more aware of what can happen if they get behind the wheel after a night of partying.

Meidinger said he feels educational efforts on drunk driving have paid off.

The streets still get congested as taxis, Lyft and Uber drivers attempt to pick people up outside bars, especially downtown, Schauer said. She hopes the city comes up with a solution for that since taxi and ride-sharing drivers are not supposed to stop on the street—perhaps designating pickup and dropoff areas, she said.

The arrival of Lyft and Uber has given residents more options for getting around town, Schauer said, and not just for getting a ride home after drinking. Not everyone in town have a vehicle or drive across town for work, getting groceries or other tasks, she said.

"There are still a lot of people that need transportation, people that just don't drive," she said.

adding she hopes it is helping people.

Still, the city could use more drives, especially at busier times like right after bars close.

"No matter what you do, we're not going to truly get enough for that point in time," she said. "It's hard to come up with a perfect solution."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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