Safety concerns raised over ride-sharing services

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

One of the early lessons children learn is to never get into a stranger’s car. They carry that lesson into adulthood, with an exception for hailing a taxi.

But what about lining up a ride via Uber, Lyft or another ride-sharing service? Safety advocates say they have serious concerns about the security of passengers in Uber vehicles, especially female passengers.

Uber operates in more than 250 cities in more than 50 countries. In May, the company announced an expansion of services in Wisconsin and now has contracted drivers operating in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, Lake Geneva, Waukesha and the Wisconsin Dells. 

Uber, in its Wisconsin announcement, said the expansion “followed passage of statewide regulations that have created a framework that embraces ride-sharing across Wisconsin.”

“In Wisconsin, our ride-sharing service UberX offers Uber convenience with prices cheaper than a taxi,” the company stated. “UberX driver partners have vehicles in a variety of colors and styles, with seating for up to four passengers.”

Passengers pay a base fee, plus costs per minute and per mile, with minimum fares set in some communities.

Ride-sharing is a service that’s particularly popular with young, urban adults.

“I don’t have a car and I don’t want one,” said Emily Brune, 21, of Madison. “But I can’t walk or bike everywhere and Uber has been the perfect answer for me and some of my friends.”

Michael Clauson, 28, of Milwaukee, is another customer and he’s considering becoming a driver.

“I like the idea that you can just work when you want,” Clauson said. “For someone who wants to make some extra money, that’s cool.”

Uber conducts background checks on driver applicants.

“To maintain the Uber standard you expect, all driver partners must undergo Uber’s rigorous screening process and every ride is covered by our $1 million commercial liability insurance policy,” the company said in introducing its Wisconsin operation. “After every trip, riders and drivers rate one another on a scale of one to five stars to maintain a safe and respectful environment for all users.”

However, Uber’s drivers are contractors, not employees, and the terms of service for passengers say the company “does not guarantee the quality, suitability, safety or ability of third-party providers.”

Over the past two years, there have been multiple reports of violence by Uber drivers against passengers. The Who’s Driving You? campaign — which was launched in 2014 by a trade association of taxicab, limousine and paratransit companies — collects and tracks complaints against Uber and Lyft drivers and reports of crimes.

The campaign’s website contains reports of drivers brandishing knives, negligent crashes, fights, thefts, kidnappings and rapes.

One report tracked by Who’s Driving You? involved a driver in D.C. who delivered an anti-gay tirade and assaulted a passenger who burped. Another involved a D.C. passenger suing Uber for $2 million after a driver repeatedly stabbed him.

In Los Angeles earlier this year, an Uber driver was arrested for attempted second-degree burglary. He allegedly dropped a female passenger off at the airport and then went to her home to break in. The woman’s roommate thwarted the attempt.

In Massachusetts, an Uber driver accused of raping a female passenger in December has now been linked by DNA evidence and witness accounts to five other sexual assaults between 2006 and 2010.

There have been at least three other assault-related incidents reported in the Boston area, as well as violent crimes reported in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Uber drivers also have been arrested in England and India for sexually assaulting passengers. A lawsuit filed early this year after the rape of a female passenger in India described Uber’s service as the “modern-day equivalent of electronic hitchhiking.”

In March, Uber responded to the concerns with a new code of conduct for drivers and passengers, a quality assurance program, worldwide incident response teams, stronger partnerships with law enforcement and improved background checks.

Uber also pledged new technology updates for safety. In India, the Uber platform features an SOS button so riders can contact local law enforcement directly from the app in emergencies. Another feature enables riders to keep multiple people informed of their exact location at all times while riding with Uber.

“With more than a million rides per day in 295 cities and 55 countries, continually improving rider and driver safety is the most critical component of what we do,” stated Phillip Cardenas, head of global safety at Uber.

But concerns continue. Referring to “multiple accounts of sexual and violent assaults that have been reported to date,” a petition circulating on Change.org asks Uber to provide an option for female passengers to choose female drivers.

Another issue of concern is the impact of Uber and other ride-sharing services on the economy. Uber drivers — who set their own hours — collect a fee from passengers and Uber takes a commission from the fees. Uber drivers don’t earn the wages of taxi drivers and other transportation workers and could negatively impact wages in the field.

Earlier this summer, progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to limit the number of Uber drivers on the streets, putting him at odds with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, says she wants to crack down on companies that classify workers as contractors rather than employees. These companies avoid the costs associated with hiring personnel, put the burden of some expense on their contractors and earn profits off those contractors.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently responded to Clinton by taking an Uber ride in San Francisco.

Bush’s driver, however, didn’t recognize the candidate and told reporters he probably would vote for Clinton.