The Drunk Men I Drive Around Every Night

As a Lyft driver, I’m applauded for driving hammered passengers home. But ride-sharing’s relationship to alcohol is far more complicated.

A view of cars on a rain-soaked seats
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Pro … surfer.” I think that’s what he said after struggling to get out the second word. Sometimes I can’t make out what they’re saying, and I just nod and say “Yeah.”

His name is James. He’s wearing surf goggles and a cap pulled down over his eyes.

“Are you a professional surfer?” I prod. “Pro … surfer. Huntington … Beach. First … place.” We’re in the parking lot of the West Union Sports Pub in landlocked Beaverton, Oregon. It’s about 3 a.m. I’m his Lyft driver, or, as I have come to think of it, his designated driver on demand.

He has set a pho-and-burger joint as his destination. I suggest that most pho-and-burger joints are now closed. He says, “Go … go. Go … go.”

So, we drive there. The placed closed at 9 p.m., and we now sit in another empty parking lot. I ask him whether there’s somewhere else he wants me to take him.

He says “strip club.” I ask for a name and whether it’s open. He says “Costco.” I know Costco is neither a strip club nor open, but he persists. We head toward the nearest Costco. After a few minutes of dead time, he begins to gesticulate, seeming to indicate that this is the place.

“Right here?” I say. “In the street?” We’re surrounded by three-story condos. I stop. “You live in one of these, right?” I do want these guys to get home. He gets out, walks frantically toward the building, and then disappears through the door.

I quit for the night.

I begin my next run the following night at about 11 p.m. My first request is for a “James” at the West Union Sports Pub. The passenger gets in my car, and before I even look, he says, “Prosurfer.” Same goggles and cap, less slurred. I refer to the night before. He has no clue who I am.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving says ride-sharing saves lives endangered by alcohol-impaired drivers on the road. Uber has joined the group for years in what it called “a partnership that protects.” “Thank your local heroes,” Uber’s description of the project reads. “The next time you ride after a couple of drinks, show your appreciation with a Late Night Hero compliment, or even a personal thank you note.” Lyft gets in on this narrative too.

Whether or not ride-sharing companies really curb drunk driving is complicated, and findings often vary by the study. My experience as a Lyft driver, and as a former congressional reporter focused on health care, tells me ride-sharing’s relationship to alcohol and health is complicated regardless.

Researchers have begun to quantify this. Late last year, a team from Georgia State, the University of Louisville, and the U.S. Department of Justice released a study that considered how ride-sharing availability might affect alcohol consumption.

“We started thinking about this question when we came across several papers examining the effect of ride-sharing on drunk driving, and saw that they found relatively small (and sometimes statistically insignificant) effects,” Keith Teltser, an economics professor at Georgia State and co-author of the study, told me. “Because ride-sharing-induced drinking could affect a broader range of outcomes of interest to researchers and policymakers, we felt it was important to start by directly studying the relationship between ride-sharing and alcohol consumption.”

The researchers used self-reported figures on alcohol consumption from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone health survey run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and analyzed variations from 2009–16 after Uber entered different markets. The study reported that UberX—one Uber ride option in many places—“is associated with a 3.1% increase in the average number of drinks consumed per day, a 2.8% increase in number of drinking days per month, a 4.9% increase in the maximum number of drinks consumed on one occasion, and a 9% increase in the prevalence of heavy drinking.” It added, “When we focus on areas with relatively weaker public transit options, we estimate UberX is associated with a 17.5 percent to 21.8 percent increase in instances of binge drinking.”

In other words, even if ride-sharing does reduce drunk driving, it might help ramp up drinking itself—and along with it, other dangerous consequences for public health. The study concluded that the “results imply that the net social impact of ridesharing is more complicated than the existing literature and policy debates suggest.

I’ve driven scores of people, mostly middle-aged men, home at around 2:30 a.m. in and around Portland, Oregon—men too drunk to utter one coherent word. Any driver who works at night could tell you similar stories.

The night before I picked up James, I picked up Adam, at the same West Union Sports Pub. I pick up a lot of these Adams. I suspect most are fiftysomethings who’ve made gobs of money at nearby big-tech campuses, like Intel’s, but I can’t be sure.

Adam has to be guided by the bartender into my car. A lot of bartenders call rides for customers too drunk to do it themselves using the apps on customers’ phones. I’ve even seen bartenders double as Uber and Lyft drivers and drive home the people to whom they served the drinks that got them too drunk to drive. (Teltser noted that research shows bar employment and earnings spike when ride-sharing is available.)

After driving so many of these Adams home, red-faced and angry, I have developed a chronic sense of guilt about my designated-driver gig. I wonder what happens when they get out of the car. Many of these guys have sat next to me, seemingly desperate to talk, but unable to offer me even one noun. It gives me the creeps.

Sometimes, drunk guys do talk in the assumed privacy of my car. Misogyny is common. I usually don’t censor my riders, but if they cross a boundary like that, I’ll say, “Change the subject, bro, OK?” If they don’t, I ask them to get out.

After the Oregon Ducks won the Rose Bowl, I picked up two middle-aged guys from a house in Beaverton. They were decked out in Ducks gear. They shouted about the game until we got to their bar of choice. A woman in an Oregon State shirt was standing in the parking lot. One of the guys said, “You hold her down, and I’ll keep her mouth busy.” Both laughed. When I didn’t, one of them said: “Hey, driver, what’s the matter? You’re not laughing.”

Another night, I picked up two guys to drive to yet another bar. One of the guys told the other that his “wifey didn’t let him drink at home anymore. She said we need to talk.” He added, “We’ll communicate when I get home tonight, all right,” followed by mirthless laughter.

Even though Adam is too drunk to talk, he haunts me more than the archetypical late-night passenger. I left him off at a house in Beaverton on a Tuesday night. He got out and ambled noisily into his dark, cavernous house. After leaving him and others eerily like him off at their McMansions, I often worry about who else might be inside those houses. My kids would be terrified if I came home like that at 3 a.m.

During the day, I sometimes pick up other Lyft and Uber drivers. The ones who do the drunk runs talk tough, and they laugh when I ask about the state of the passengers they pick up from bars at closing time. They use a meme I hear over and over from both passengers and other drivers: “Better off in the back seat of my car than on the road.” They speak with pride of the “service” they’re performing. When I ask whether they have any qualms about enabling binge drinking, they shrug it off and say, “That’s where the money is.”

I sometimes also ask my passengers about whether they think the ease of conjuring a ride home with their Lyft app encourages binge drinking or at least nudges people toward drinking more. They seem to find the question irrelevant, and odd. Most start talking about how grateful they are for “you guys.” They can go out and drink without worrying about getting a DUI or killing someone driving home (“I’m much better off in the back of your car, aren’t I?”). What’s salient to me is that these passengers almost universally associate ride-sharing with drinking.

Passengers who can find my car unassisted by a bar employee and are able to speak often say, “You’re saving me $10,000.” And while I am saving passengers the cost of a DUI, and agree they are far better off in my car than on the road, the potential health costs to drinkers and their families associated with my ready availability as a driver gnaw at me.

My passengers seem unaware how much they are drinking—and instead only see not being intoxicated on the road, not getting a DUI, and being able to go out and drink. They have trouble seeing the potential dark side. Binge drinking is associated with domestic violence, alcohol-related diseases, increased health care costs, and on and on. On the road with these men night after night, it’s hard not to feel like an enabler.

It is clear to me, at least, that I am far from a “late night hero.”

A couple of months ago, Lyft required drivers to watch a series of videos intended to promote safety. The videos talked about how to handle “challenging passenger situations,” mostly involving passengers saying things that made you uncomfortable or touching you in inappropriate ways. That hadn’t happened to me, but maybe it would be less likely for male drivers.

Soon after watching the videos, I picked up Gary. He reeked from, I would guess, days of drinking. He said he was moving to Nevada and needed to get to the train station; he had a small suitcase with him. He said he had written a “five-page letter” to Lyft saying no female drivers were allowed to pick him up. I didn’t ask why, but I knew that a guy who spent the time to send a five-page letter to Lyft with that demand was bound to be a talker.

He rambled. “She”—the Lyft driver—“said I had to get out before my stop because I touched her. She left me on the side of the road, in the dark. I never touched her. So, I told them, no more women drivers,” he said.

He went on: “Maybe I touched her. I don’t know. I was drunk. She had ‘daddy issues.’ ” And then he said all he did was touch her … like this. As I saw his hand moving toward my shoulder, I said, “You touch me, and you’re getting out, right here, and we aren’t even in Portland, never mind Union Station.” I thought, I sure would have been happy to leave him on the side of the road in the dark.

I dropped him off at the station. He wasn’t my last passenger that night.

Names of riders have been changed.