WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Just five years since the app launched and two years since it came to Wilmington, Uber has become one of the most powerful businesses in the country by changing the way people get around. But the recent drunk driving conviction of a Wilmington Uber driver – who was busted while he had paying passengers in the car - has raised questions.
"I think on balance it's been a very good development for this community to have Uber," said New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David. "There's no question that many people who used to kind of cheat it home are now calling [Uber], and so that's a good thing. But it's totally unacceptable that anyone would try to drive impaired, particularly people who are driving for commercial purposes."
In March, 31-year-old Michael Barnes pleaded guilty to drunk driving at the New Hanover County Courthouse. He'd been arrested by a State Trooper in October for weaving in and out of his lane on Eastwood Road and had a blood alcohol level of .10.
That's over North Carolina's legal BAL limit of .08, and Highway Patrol says Barnes was carrying passengers for Uber at the time of the traffic stop.
Officials say Barnes' passengers appeared shocked to see their driver get arrested, and they were forced to find an alternate ride home shortly after the midnight arrest.
"People are using this service because they expect not to need a designated driver, and if that person is impaired too, that defeats the whole purpose," David said after learning of the arrest. "That's why this is of great concern to us."
Barnes had a clean driving record prior to that DWI arrest and appears to have lost his job with Uber for that lapse in judgment. The company responded to our initial inquiry about the arrest but has not yet formally confirmed details about Barnes' employment status. Our attempts to reach Barnes for comment were unsuccessful.
We do know Uber policy expressly prohibits drug and alcohol use by drivers while using the Uber app, and advises passengers who suspect their driver to be under the influence to end the trip immediately and alert the company.
While troopers say they have arrested other Uber drivers in New Hanover County for driving under the influence with passengers on board, there is no compelling evidence to indicate this is a pervasive trend in Wilmington.
Along with just about every other profession, including traditional cab drivers, some people choose to drive while impaired. But because Uber's popularity has prompted many people to begin relying on the transportation network, it's a good reminder to take a close look at any driver before you get in the car with them.
Highway Patrol arrested another female Uber driver with passengers in the car for DWI, after she blew a .08 into a portable breathalyzer along the side of the road. But when the official blood alcohol test was given at the jail, her blood alcohol level had dropped to .07. Troopers explained the magistrate dropped the DWI case due to lack of probable cause.
Troopers say they had another similar case, where the Uber driver was arrested for driving under the influence, but ultimately blew under the legal limit and the charges were dismissed.
While these two examples are not illegal, David says it's still concerning behavior for someone getting paid to pick up members of the public.
"Any amount of alcohol is unacceptable as far as I'm concerned," David said of people driving for hire.
Cab drivers have been complaining about the competition from Uber for years. Josh Price, owner of Price is Right Taxi, says this is another example of a unique risk you take catching a ride with Uber, that would be less common with a cab driver working a set shift.
"I don't sit there and have a drink, because I know I'm going to be working later that night," Price said.
Price says the spontaneous nature of an Uber driver's schedule, which allows them to clock on and off at their convenience, could contribute to Uber drivers driving under the influence. He says that it makes it easier to blur the lines of work hours and personal hours.