by Xinhua writers Wang Hongjiang, Wang Xuemei
MONTEREY, the United States, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) — A 26-year-old New Yorker’s Uber ride from a bar to a subway stop turned into a nightmare when she was assaulted by a drunken random stranger and then blocked by Uber from using its application.
The drunk man, who thought he was a legitimate rider in her Uber pool rideshare, got angry after being refused entry into the car as the driver confirmed he was not in the pool.
“He spit in my face, yelled at me and then smashed the rear windshield of the car right behind where I was sitting,” said the woman, a law school student at New York University, in a recent interview with Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
“I couldn’t stop crying and I was traumatized by the assault,” she recalled of the incident that happened in January 2017. “I ended up taking a cab.”
This case may be not typical, but riders do face safety risks when taking rideshare cars. In many cases, drivers are the offenders. Alleged offenses have ranged from sexual assaults to gun violence.
A CNN investigation revealed that at least 103 Uber drivers in the United States have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the past four years. However, the actual number of alleged sexual harassments and assaults committed by Uber drivers is believed to be higher, as some victims either prefer to stay silent or resolve their complaints in private.
Uber sees a lot of turnover among its drivers. “It was built…like a constant revolving door,” said Saba Waheed, research director at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Labor Center, who is an expert on the sharing economy.
On average, Uber performs 15 million rides each day worldwide. In March of this year, the company drove approximately 41.8 million users in the U.S. alone, according to Statista, an online statistics portal.
However, after eight years of rapid growth, Uber has come under heavy criticism by the public because of its feeble efforts to keep passengers and drivers safe.
“I think the fact that the company is constantly involving new people will always make safety a problem,” said Waheed.
“Uber has not done an adequate job of really addressing the issue of safety,” she said, referring to the lack of regulations and necessary safety measures.
Ride-hailing apps allow people to get into strangers’ cars, but the creators did not think about passenger and driver safety until mishaps occurred, according to Waheed.
The safety measures are essential in preventing risks, but the way the company responds when problems arise is also important.
In the case of the New York student, the Uber driver did not stand up for her during the assault. He then refused to help her file a report with the police, and drove away.
Making matters even worse, Uber responded by blocking her account. The company ignored her for weeks until she threatened to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit organization focusing on resolving disputes between consumers and businesses.
“They apologized for what had happened and said they would reinstate my account. This was a lie and I called them for days trying to get my account back, but they didn’t,” said the woman.
In fact, it was not until she started posting about her complaints on then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s Facebook page that Uber reinstated her account.
Unlike the development of the taxi industry, the ride-hailing companies came in an unregulated way at the beginning, according to Waheed.
“Taxi drivers have all kinds of rules, including the way they should be performing,” she said.
Previous rules did not block the “bad apples” from joining the pool of Uber drivers and ruining the image of the whole industry.
Uber has tried to address safety issues by adding new features to their application. These include an in-app emergency button. When a user presses the button, the company automatically sends 911 dispatchers the rider’s name, location, details of the Uber vehicle and the driver’s information.
The company also announced in July that it began monitoring drivers for criminal offenses in real-time.
According to Axios reports, Uber partnered with Checkr, its background check provider, and Appriss, which provides safety data. Through Appriss’ real-time data collection, Uber will be notified if a driver is newly charged with a criminal offense. This new technology was being tested in July.
Previously, the company ran background checks only before a potential driver joined the workforce, meaning that it could not always track later violations or problems.
On its website, Uber says that “periodically, we re-run background checks for current driver partners.”
Multiple drivers and passengers also offered their suggestions for improving the ride-sharing service.
“Uber should offer some sort of training for their drivers. As of now, there is no training required,” said Dina Nasrallah, who became a full-time Uber driver in October.
Still, Waheed asserts that safety issues should not be the responsibility of the company alone. The government should oversee Travel Management Companies (TMCs), help sexual harassment victims in filing complaints and make the data more transparent for public oversight.
“The government agencies should be holding the companies responsible, making sure the customers are protected,” said Waheed.
“The government should play a meaningful role in regulating the industry,” echoed Katie Wells, a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown University who conducts studies on Uber drivers.
Currently, Uber’s data is not publicly available to researchers, which keeps the big picture of safety issues behind the veil.
Wells believes “Uber should share the data” as the first step in addressing safety issues.
For extra measures, experts also advise passengers to have a personal protection strategy, like sharing photos of the car plate with a relative or a friend.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has promised that Uber will do “the right thing.”
According to Tony West, general counsel at Uber, doing the right thing involves three key elements — transparency, integrity and accountability.
“Maintaining the public’s trust and earning back the respect of customers we’ve lost through our past actions and behavior is about more than new products and policies. It requires self-reflection and a willingness to challenge orthodoxies of the past,” West said.
Uber pledged in November to release a safety transparency report in 2019. The company has outlined how it will categorize sexual misconduct, sexual assault and rape claims involving its drivers and passengers. Uber deemed the move to be a first step toward publishing its report.
Despite the negative safety incidents in the past years, many Uber drivers argued that offenders do not reflect the whole picture.
Waheed said she had not seen any kind of drop in ridership even though these incidents came out.
“I am still using Uber,” said the New York student, in spite of the frightening assault experience.
“Uber is a great resource, especially in cities, and I hope that Uber can resolve these issues so that the company can continue to evolve,” said Leah Schluter, a frequent Uber user.
While many people are willing to use Uber for the convenience it provides, there is no doubt that it is time for Uber to live up to customer expectations, since they have the final say on Uber’s boom or bust.