In spite of Uber’s years-long attempt to promote its service as more than just a convenience, the company’s recently released safety report exposing the frequency of assaults has given riders and drivers major cause for concern. One longtime skeptic in Toronto, 55 year-old Rhonda Chiger, is hopeful the report will cause other people to avoid using the service. “I’m hoping that people really take this to heart. Safety is a top priority.”
The timing of the assault report is not particularly good for the company. Uber has had to lay off employees while trying to turn a profit amidst an attempt to repair its brand. The company has been hit with a social media campaign encouraging users to ditch the service after allegations of sexual harassment within the organization surfaced. The new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, came onboard in 2017 and vowed a new “Uber 2.0.”
When Uber’s meteoric rise took place in early 2010, safety concerns arose, as well. States wanted to require background checks of all drivers for Uber and other similar ride-hailing entities like Lyft and Sidecar, while these companies all fought the effort. However, the states won the battle, and now Lyft and Uber continuously do background checks on their drivers. In an attempt to increase safety features, quick access to 911 was added, and Uber even tried audio recordings of trips.
The Safety Report
Uber is one example of a tech company that would likely have never been able to reach such a huge scale of operation in pre-internet days. With its released report containing such a massive amount of data, questions arise: Has the easy availability of online information made societal problems like assault seem worse than they are, or has this availability only served to help make the public aware of how widespread the problem really is? Uber suggests that the number of assaults is minuscule, but is this true if eight sexual assaults are taking place every day in Uber cars?
According to Uber’s report, only a small fraction of rides result in assault, meaning there’s a “critical safety incident” in only 0.0003 percent of trips. Per Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, these assaults point to the bigger problem of sexual assault.
“Each of those incidents represents an individual who has undergone a horrific trauma,” West explained to NBC News. “But I’m not surprised by those numbers, and I’m not surprised, because sexual violence is just much more pervasive in society than I think most people realize.”
Pervasive Sexual Assault?
At the University of Chicago’s NORC social research organization, John Roman, a senior fellow, argues that the explanation given by West isn’t necessarily true. Roman notes that, despite some societal beliefs, it is extremely uncommon for violence to take place between total strangers.
While Roman commends Uber for releasing the report, he added that the comparison of the number of overall rides to the number of assaults occurring therein is not a particularly helpful metric. He notes that it would be much more essential and helpful to determine if individuals are more or less endangered in an Uber ride than they are anywhere else during their day. (Lyft has not publicly released any statistics like Uber’s, but has sent an email to NBC News promising a forthcoming report, without noting when.)
Roman went on to call the numbers “alarming” in a Twitter post: “Uber released data yesterday showing 1,500 sexual assaults, 50 traffic fatalities, and 10 homicides during 1 billion rides each year. So, are those numbers big or small? Let’s figure it out. Spoiler alert: IMHO these numbers are alarming.”
Roman notes that Uber’s sheer size allows it to directly control its drivers and fleet, so it should be able to detect and prevent problems on a much larger scale than 1,000 small cab companies could do. He added that regular taxis do not have a similar reach to Uber and do not have this type of assault data available. “We’re so used to thinking about the downsides of technology that we don’t look at the upside of technology,” per Roman.
Roman then points out the obvious “elephant in the room.” The mere action of ride-hailing companies putting strangers together in very tight spaces where there are no barriers can logically be seen as potentially leading to the opportunity for violent interactions, especially since the driving profession is easy for women to enter. Per Roman, “You’re in somebody’s car. It’s an intimate setting, and unlike a taxi, there’s no divider. You just have more access to each other.”
A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment but mentions that the report’s statistics attempt to put into context the bigger picture of the assault problem in society. The spokesperson states that, according to Uber-cited studies, a mere 25 percent of all rapes or sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, while 81 percent of females report having had some form of sexual assault or harassment in their lifetime.
Drivers Also Vulnerable
Uber shows that 45 percent of the serious sexual assault reports it receives are cases where riders attack the driver. Even though the company has implemented methods to protect its drivers, like banning any rider who has a low rating on the platform, drivers can still be at risk.
Kaylania Chapman, a YouTuber who has experience working for a number of gig-economy companies, says Uber drivers feel forgotten. “A lot of drivers don’t feel safe anymore. And then, you have passengers that feel the same way, but the companies aren’t doing that much to ensure the safety of drivers.” She knows that female drivers are particularly at risk, and many of them carry protection like mace or handguns, against Uber’s rules.
One 48-year-old Uber driver in California, Judah Bell, believes the company favors its passenger’s safety more than its driver’s safety. She has personally been victim to harassment or assault of some form “at least 20 times” in her four years of driving. “For a passenger to put their hand between my legs is not uncommon,” she said.
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Jason Abbruzzese. “Uber riders and drivers share fears about safety after company releases assault numbers”, NBC News. Accessed December 9, 2019.