Uber vs. Ambulances: Comparing Price, Safety & Response Time


uber vs. ambulances
8 min read

Imagine it’s the middle of the night, and you wake up to intense pain. You’re alone and in no condition to drive. What would you do?

Traditionally, you might pick up the phone and call for an ambulance to take you to the emergency room. Or, you’d phone a friend. However, there’s a growing trend in recent years – people are hailing an Uber to take them to the ER.

In fact, that’s exactly what Gene Caballero of Nashville, Tennessee did.

“I had a pinched nerve in my neck so bad that I opted to call an Uber to take me to the ER,” he said. “It was in the middle of the night. I was not able to drive and the pain was too much to bear. I laid in the back seat until we got to the ER, and my Uber driver actually helped me get to the door.”

In the age of the sharing economy, is this the new normal? We polled more than 2,100 people to find out.

Are People Choosing Rideshares over Ambulances?

Based on the results, it seems like the majority of people find the idea of hailing a rideshare to be unsafe.

https://twitter.com/katie_allen7/status/872593499375378432

However, some rideshare drivers tell us otherwise.

Phil Reames of Kalamazoo, Michigan drives for Lyft and has driven riders to the emergency rooms several times.

“When I see the destination, I ask how serious it is and if I need to ‘hurry.’ It has never been any big deal. No blood in my car or anything. I have also picked people up at the emergency room and taken them home. I just had another one of those Saturday night.”

Reames has been driving since August of 2016. He doesn’t think it’s a trend. In the last 10 months, he says this has happened maybe six to nine times. He also doesn’t believe they chose him over an ambulance. If it weren’t for him, they’d likely have called a friend or a taxi.

“None of the injuries were that bad. They may have been bleeding and needed a few stitches, but it isn’t like they were about to lose a leg or anything.”

One Lyft driver in Austin named Bryan told us he once picked up a woman in labor and drove her and her husband to the hospital. He said he did not hesitate because she needed help and he was happy to provide it, and that he’d probably do that for anyone — regardless of the emergency — if they were sick or even if they had blood on them. Bryan added that he might charge them for a cleaning fee of his car if he had to, but it would still probably be cheaper for the riders than the cost of taking an ambulance.

At a glance, it might look like Uber, Lyft, or another rideshare company has the upper hand.

Response Time

The average emergency response time across the United States is 15 minutes and 19.2 seconds, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data from 1994 to 2013. The state with the fastest response time is Illinois at six minutes. In major cities where Uber is available, you can expect to wait fewer than five minutes for a ride.

It’s true that the comparison is pretty unfair — we couldn’t find data on non-life-threatening response times that could serve as an apples-to-apples comparison. However, when someone has a seemingly non-life-threatening illness or injury and needs a quick ride to the ER or Urgent Care (or even the maternity ward!), it seems like a rideshare might be the quickest way there.

The average ambulance response time in the U.S. is more than 15 mins. For Uber? 5 mins.

Location Accuracy

In May 2016 John Oliver revealed that 911 call centers are so behind in technology that they aren’t even close to matching Uber’s level of location tracking. The nation’s 911 system is in dire need of an upgrade. Emergency centers can’t locate callers on cell phones, callers are transferred to the wrong emergency centers, emergency centers don’t speak to one another…the list goes on.

(Disclaimer: There is adult language in this video clip. This is an HBO show after all.)

Price

Transparent pricing in rideshares is quite the draw. You can get your ride estimate, pay at the end of the ride, choose to tip or not tip, and that’s it. Even if you’re trying to hail a ride when surge pricing is in effect, you still pay the full price of the ride when you’ve arrived at your destination. No surprise bill months later or finding out that your insurance company didn’t cover the ambulance ride.

Ambulances, on the other hand, may or may not be covered by your insurance. One man in Long Island was charged $2,700 for a 2-mile ambulance ride to the hospital. Insurance covered most of it, but he was still left with a bill for $770.30.

The Risks

In a minor emergency, sure, hailing a rideshare is just the same as asking a friend for a ride. However, when medical intervention may be involved, that’s where this gets risky.

Ambulances were made to handle emergencies. There are trained medical professionals on board (typically two EMTs and/or paramedics, along with the driver) and they are equipped with a “low-level emergency room.”

Plus, ambulances with sirens on and horns blaring always have the right-of-way, can exceed speed limits, and can drive through red lights to reach their destinations – which can give them the edge of speed needed in life-or-death situations. All states have some sort of move over law that requires drivers to reduce speed and “move over” to allow emergency response vehicles to bypass traffic.

Finally, what about germs? How often do rideshare drivers clean or disinfect their vehicles? What if someone with a communicable disease gets in the vehicle? The next person could be at risk.

Unlike Uber, ambulances can speed and run red lights, which is critical in life-or-death situations.

I’ll leave you with my personal story: In college, during mid-terms, I wasn’t feeling well. I had the absolute worst headache I ever had in my life and could barely walk. I didn’t have my own car, so I asked my friends to give me a ride to the university health center. From there, the nurse said I needed to go to the ER. I had viral meningitis (not the deadly bacterial one) and found out days later that I also had shingles. My friends disinfected the car and everything else I had touched around them. Luckily, they didn’t get sick.

This was well before any rideshare company was around, but I would have most definitely used a rideshare service if it existed as to not inconvenience my friends. I could have potentially spread shingles or viral meningitis to the passengers after me. No bueno.

So, what do you think? Would you call an Uber or other rideshare service to go to the ER? Share your stories in the comments below.