Uber had little impact on traffic deaths in South Africa, Baker Institute expert finds

Uber may reduce traffic death rates due to drunk driving in the U.S., recent studies suggest, but researchers report a different result in South Africa.

A highway in Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

The introduction of Uber in South Africa did not lead to either an increase or a large decrease in province-level traffic-related deaths, according to a report co-authored by an expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The study is noteworthy because road traffic fatalities are such a serious problem in low-income and middle-income countries that the United Nations considers them a substantial barrier to improving overall population health. In South Africa, the traffic injury mortality rate of 27 deaths per 100,000 people is twice the global average; over 60 percent of those accidents are alcohol-related.

Farhan Majid, the L.E. and Virginia Simmons Fellow in Health and Technology Policy at the Baker Institute, co-authored the report, “Estimating Effects of Uber Ride-Sharing Service on Road Traffic-Related Deaths in South Africa: A Quasi-Experimental Study,” with colleagues Jonathan Yinhao Huang of McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and Mark Daku of Texas Christian University’s Department of Political Science.

The researchers used a so-called “difference-in-differences” approach. Analyzing certification data from all deaths reported in South Africa between 2010 and 2014, they investigated the relative change in weekly traffic fatalities between provinces that received Uber services (beginning in 2013) against those that did not.

The researchers found that weekly traffic-related deaths dropped in provinces with Uber  compared to provinces without Uber, but the difference was almost insignificant. The effect size was larger in the province that had Uber the longest (Gauteng) and among young adult males (ages 17–39). But the absolute effects were very small (less than 2 deaths per year) and may just reflect a seasonal variation, the authors said.

Still, reducing road-traffic injury mortality is a global priority and mobile-based ride sharing technologies like Uber promise to be a novel solution, the authors said.

“Replications in this and other low-income and middle-income settings are critically needed,” the researchers wrote. “In South Africa, road-traffic injury mortality represents the fourth largest contributor to lost life years, and costs associated with road traffic injury account for about 3 percent of gross domestic product.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.