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It's confirmed: Uber lets you drink more

It's confirmed: Uber lets you drink more
An Uber logo is seen on a smartphone in Barcelona, Spain, on July 1, 2014. (David Ramos / Getty Images)

How often have you changed your mind about ordering a second glass -- or a second bottle -- of wine, worried about driving home? (As often as necessary, hopefully.) I was contemplating the same question recently, sipping a glass of wine at a DTLA restaurant and eavesdropping on other patrons perusing the wine list.

Responsible people, of course, act responsibly, but the range of what might be defined as "adult behavior" has expanded in the last couple of years. You don't really need a designated driver, because, well, you already have one: Uber. Or Lyft. Or some other ride-hailing app.

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Does that mean fewer people are drinking and driving and causing accidents? Restaurateurs are enthusiastic; law enforcement agencies share data that might be interpreted as hopeful. State officials are, well, cautious. At least, some of them are.

Ride-hailing is a "game changer," said Francois Renaud, managing partner at Terrine, which opened in Los Angeles' Mid-City neighborhood in late 2014. "The idea of the designated driver never really worked because nobody ever wanted to do it." Before moving to Terrine, Renaud worked for four years as general manager at the Tasting Kitchen in Venice, where, he said, it was easy to track ride-hailing use.

"The difference is in the second bottle of wine ordered," he said. "You could also stand outside and observe how many people were ordering a ride from Uber or Lyft on their phones."

Donato Poto, co-owner of the West Hollywood seafood bistro Connie & Ted's, said that in the last year, there's been a noticeable drop in the number of customers who drive themselves. Before ride-sharing, his valets parked 110 to 120 cars a night, he said, but "now they're parking, at most, 70. The other 40 or 50 are all Uber dropoffs."

Michael Kolden, director of operations for several popular Yard House bars in Southern California, said all of his millennial customers have a ride-sharing app on their phones.

"They don't need to make a phone call in a noisy bar where they can't hear. They simply hit a button and a ride appears," Kolden said. "And they can know exactly where the driver is. Six minutes away? They'll finish their drinks and go outside just before the car arrives."

In the past, Claudio Blotta said, when he would ask customers at his restaurants (Barbrix, Cooks County and All'Aqua) if they'd like a second glass of wine, he'd often hear, "I'd love to, but I have to drive." Not anymore. "Uber makes everybody safer."

But does it?

According to figures supplied by the California Highway Patrol, drunk-driving citations in Los Angeles County dropped by 5.6% in 2014 compared with the prior year (14,874 citations in 2014 vs. 15,765 in  2013).

The LAPD, on the other hand, provided data on "DUI-related traffic collisions." If you compare figures from 2014 and 2013 from the Central, South, West and Valley traffic divisions, there's no dramatic change. The Central Division actually reported more DUI-related collisions -- 337 in 2014, from 285 in 2013. The Valley Division also reported an increase -- 707 in 2014, from 654 in 2013. But the South and West divisions reported a small decrease in DUI-related collisions.

Some officials caution against linking any changes in DUI-related data with any one factor, such as the growth in ride-hailing.

"DUI is a complex subject with many causes," said Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety. "To be able to postulate whether the advent of Uber or other ride-share services had any significant effect would be difficult if not impossible"

There's not a lot of research on the topic, but in January, Mothers Against Drunk Driving published a report that suggested ride-hailing services may be lowering instances of drunk driving. The report focused on some of Uber's earliest markets, including California, and compared alcohol-related crash data from state highway patrols for the years 2011 to 2013 (the years before and after UberX, the service's lower-priced option, was introduced). In California, the report said, drunk-driving crashes fell 6.5% among drivers in cities after UberX was launched.

In July, Temple University's Fox School of Business released a study that concluded that low-cost, on-demand transportation could reduce the rate of drunk-driving-related deaths by 3.6%. The introduction of UberX, researchers found, made a noticeable difference. The study, according to Temple researcher Brad Greenwood is only a starting point, but "valid conclusions could be drawn from the data."

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Randy Clement, co-owner of E.R.B., a new bar and restaurant in the downtown Arts District, has also witnessed the ride-hailing revolution firsthand: "Instead of seeing the California license plates coming down the street, you see the big U's on the dashboard coming.

"I think the idea of responsibility has been morphed a little bit and people can be little bit less responsible, responsibly, because of Uber."

Follow @sirenevirbila for more on food and wine

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