Aug 2, 2016 ยท 5 minutes

There are some nonprofit groups about which it impossible to be cynical. Groups whose name alone renders them impervious to skepticism.

Nuns Against Kitten Cancer. Tough to criticize that one.

Rainbow Unicorns Against Trump. See also.

And of course, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Rest easy nuns and unicorns, this article isn’t about you.

Last week, I (and everyone else) reported research by the American Journal of Epidemiology that showed Uber has had no measurable impact in reducing drunk driving.

This news was surprising for two reasons: First, Uber’s claim to reduce DUIs was the company’s last remaining “we’re not horrible for the universe” claim that seemed broadly plausible. Second, the study goes against similar “research” published by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) which claimed that Uber has in fact dramatically cut incidents of drunk driving in the markets in which it operates.

In California, drunk-driving crashes fell 6.5% among drivers under 30 in the markets where Uber operates following the launch of uberX in the state

That represents potentially 60 fewer drunk driving crashes each month -- a total of 1,800 crashes avoided -- since July 2012. California is Uber’s home state and longest-running market and demonstrates for a possible similar reduction in other Uber markets.

How is it possible that MADD got it so wrong?

A first clue can be found in the quote marks I put around MADD’s “research.” A closer examination reveals a methodology that’s slightly, uh, looser than that of the American Journal of Epidemiology. MADD’s study simply compares the number of accidents involving alcohol before Uber X launched with the number afterwards. As MPR News pointed out, it ignored any other factors such as increased public education, changes in legislation or, yunno, the fact that different numbers of things happen on different years without proving causation.

When it comes to proving the Uber link, MADD simply asked a bunch of people “do you think you’re likely to tell your drunk friends to take an Uber rather than driving?” A staggering 93% percent of people told a survey taker that they would not advise their friends to break the law.

Also interesting is the fact that MADD only mentions Uber in its headlines, not Lyft or any other ridesharing services which, presumably, are equally good alternatives to driving drunk.

But again, this is a group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Is it any wonder the study barely prompted critical analysis in the media, let alone ridicule for its breathtakingly flawed methodology?

What is strange, however, is that MADD was willing to put its name on a survey that’s so patently ridiculous and that is essentially a giant (and misleading) ad for Uber.

This past week, one Pando reader took to Twitter to suggest a reason:

My first thought was that Mr or Ms “Smith&Co” sounded a conspiracy theorist. Of course Uber doesn’t pay MADD to produce favorable studies. That would just be crazy. At the very least any kind of financial conflict would have to be disclosed in the press announcements around the study. It’s people like Smith&Co who give Uber critics a bad name. Etc etc.

That said, it was certainly jarring to read the note in the MADD study that admits it was carried out “in partnership” with Uber. Is it really possible that MADD is a paid shill for Travis Kalanick and co?

Funny story: It’s not only true, but it’s not really a secret. It’s right there in MADD’s annual reports.

A casual glance at MADD’s website reveals the depth of its two year (and counting) partnership with Uber. Aside from the dozens of pro-Uber press releases, there are also joint fundraising drives including, last month, a pledge by Uber to match any donations made by riders to MADD. That’s a lot of money flowing to MADD from Uber and its riders. How generous!

Dig deeper, though, and things get decidedly murkier. The group’s annual report for 2014 lists Uber as a major financial donor. What it doesn’t say is exactly how much Uber paid, or what they were promised in return. All we’re told is that in 2014 Uber paid MADD between “$100,000 [and] $499,000.”  (Financial statements have not yet been published for 2015 and 2016.)

Even if you dig right into MADD’s Form 990 filing for 2014 (goodbye Sunday afternoon!) you’ll draw a blank. MADD cites an exemption in the filing rules that allow it to only itemize single donors who give 2% or more of the group’s total receipts. Given MADD brought in over $26m in 2014, Uber’s “under $500k” donation falls conveniently below the disclosure limit.

What we know for sure is that Uber paid six figures to MADD in 2014, and has continued to pay at least that in subsequent years, judging by the fact they remain listed on MADD’s website along with other six figure sponsors. That puts the lower limit of Uber’s payments to MADD over three years at $300k and the upper limit just a fraction shy of $1.5m.   

We also know that, as all this money flowed from Uber to MADD, the organization has remained steadfastly - some might say blindly - committed to the message that Uber (Uber specifically, not ridesharing generally) cuts drunk driving rates even when that claim has now been proven to be false. Worse, none of the press releases mentioning their pro-Uber study disclose that Uber is a financial backer of MADD and, therefore, a paid sponsor of those anti-drunk driving/pro Uber claims.

A few days ago, I emailed MADD to ask for a breakdown of Uber’s payments to the group, and also to ask if they have a formal agreement to promote Uber in exchange for the cash. As of publication time I’ve received no response, but I’ll update this story if I do.

In the meantime, I’m digging into the Form 990s for Nuns Against Kitten Cancer. Apparently you can’t trust anyone.