In April, an altercation during which a Lyft driver slashed a passenger’s arm with a box cutter happened less than 20 miles from ASU’s Tempe campus.
Though neither party was significantly injured, both men went to jail and made yet another headline about incidents and unsafe conditions in the ridesharing sphere.
According to whosdrivingyou.org, a site dedicated to spreading rideshare safety awareness, there have been 121 reported sexual assaults, six alleged kidnappings and 15 deaths in the rideshare community to date. Uber and Lyft are also no strangers to DUIs, negligent background checks and other nefarious behavior that puts drivers and passengers in increasingly dangerous situations every day.
Despite all of the horror stories and bad press, Uber has still facilitated 1 billion rides worldwide in the past six months alone.
Marketed as a “safer, friendlier” alternative to taxis and other modes of transportation, rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft are essentially a socially acceptable form of hitchhiking. What is it about hailing a ride from a smartphone app that is ostensibly safer than outstretching one’s thumb to procure a ride? Does the convenience of getting a cheap ride from a stranger outweigh the perils presented to drivers and passengers?
According to Tracey Breeden, spokeswoman for Uber Safety Communications, West, GPS data for all rides are logged, so the company knows where riders and passengers are at all times. GPS also enables Uber to verify the efficiency of every route, which is implemented to maintain accountability and good behavior. Passengers can share their locations as well so friends and family can follow the trip.
However, these features have no way of monitoring or modifying the behavior of passengers and drivers during the trip, not to mention after the trip has ended.
Harry Campbell, who drives for Uber and Lyft, and runs a popular blog called therideshareguy.com, says these types of programs are “inherently safer” due to digital tracking and background checks. However, these background checks only look at violations from the previous seven years, and even then, anomalies still occur.
One of the biggest stigmas against rideshare drivers is their lack of training, an element that has recently garnered tremendous contention. Rideshare drivers operate as independent contractors, not employees, which means they cannot legally be provided with training from Uber or Lyft.
“Even if they want to train their drivers on some of these issues or even recommend something like a dash cam, it sort of gets into a legal grey area,” Campbell says.
Recently, a burgeoning market for startups focused on rideshare safety have emerged. Dash cams, small cameras mounted on the dashboard that film the inside and outside of the vehicle, have been particularly popular.
“It’s sort of like an insurance policy for drivers against anything that might go wrong,” Campbell says. “Passengers, when they know they’re being recorded, can relax and have fun, they just know that if they do anything really stupid or really egregious, it’s on video.”
Another startup that addresses rideshare safety concerns is the Rideshare Safety Partition, a transparent, removable barrier that can conveniently be placed between the front and back seats of any car, reminiscent of those found in taxis. The object of the partition is to put both drivers and passengers at ease while riding in an Uber or Lyft.
“There are several risks to drivers and passengers using rideshare apps, but the top two are both drivers and passengers are strangers and can be unpredictable,” says Ocea Jones, chief safety operations officer of Rideshare Safety Partition. “There are no boundaries in the car, so both a driver and passenger can easily attack or invade each other’s private space.”
Jones says peace of mind is important when riding in a car with a stranger, whether you’re behind the wheel or along for the ride. A safety precaution like a partition provides this “without taking away from the social aspect of ridesharing.”
“All drivers and passengers should be empowered to call for help when in need,”Jones says. “This can happen more easily when there is a barrier in place…that makes both groups feel safe and serves as a deterrent from potential attacks.”
Uber hopes that a new in-app, telematic feature that uses the driver’s phone to track their braking, acceleration and driving style will help monitor the way drivers operate.
“As it stands now, drivers are currently rated on a one to five star system, and that’s all based on passenger feedback,” says Campbell. “The thing about this new system of feedback is basically, it’s supposed to be more objective.”
Campbell says that even with the risks posed to drivers and passengers, the horror stories that make headlines don’t account for even one hundredth of the rides that Uber and Lyft have executed since their inception. Knowing the risks and efficiently diffusing potentially dangerous situations are the most imperative parts of rideshare safety, he says.
“On a percentage basis, it’s still really low, but these things do happen from time to time…I’m always trying to think of ways for [drivers]to maybe not necessarily protect themselves, but sort of be proactive to avoid any of these types of situations,” says Campbell.