On an early April morning last year, Jessica* called an Uber to take her home after a DJ gig in Manhattan. At that time, Jessica used Uber frequently. When the car arrived outside of the Fat Buddha Bar in the East Village, just after 2 a.m., she says she noticed the driver was very affable. “He said, ‘How’re you doing tonight? Where are you from?’” But she thought nothing of it.
At the end of the 20-minute ride, the driver parked his extended-length SUV with tinted windows in front of her apartment building in Queens. Jessica had dozed off in the backseat, and, according to her, the driver reached his hand back from the front and began caressing her face. Exhausted, she continued to sleep. He climbed out of the car and into the backseat, ran his hands across her shoulders, and tried to remove her clothes.
“When he started touching my shoulders, that’s when I woke up,” Jessica tells me. She shoved him off, dashed out of the car, and ran into her apartment.
“The first thing that I thought was, ‘I don’t really wanna make a thing out of it because this just happened to me,’” she says. “All these things went through my head like, ‘I shouldn’t have had anything to drink. I shouldn’t have taken an Uber. I should’ve just taken the train home.’ All these should haves.”
Jessica isn’t the only passenger to have allegedly been sexually assaulted by an Uber driver. While passengers have also assaulted drivers, the ride-sharing company has come under fire for failing to ensure the safety of its riders. This past March, Buzzfeed News published leaked internal data suggesting that, from December 2012 to August 2015, Uber’s customer service team received 5,827 tickets with the word “rape” and 6,160 tickets with the term “sexual assault.” The tickets—complaints or feedback—were submitted by passengers within the Uber app. Soon after, Uber published a response on Medium, insisting that the leaked info was “highly misleading.”
According to data provided by Uber to BuzzFeed News, the company received five claims of rape and “fewer than” 170 claims of sexual assault directly related to an Uber ride between December 2012 and August 2015. Who’s Driving You?, an initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association (TLPA) promoting for-hire vehicle safety, has tracked 19 stories of alleged assaults by Uber drivers and over 100 reports of alleged sexual assaults and harassment by Uber drivers in the United States alone. Dave Sutton, the spokesperson for Who’s Driving You?, says those numbers could be much higher, since there are likely incidents that go unreported to the police or fail to garner media attention.
But is this the norm? How safe is Uber in New York City, really?
Uber was founded as UberCab in San Francisco in March 2009. The app-based company connects passengers with drivers who take them from point A to point B, and its services are currently available in 446 cities worldwide. Successes aside, Uber has been criticized for functioning separately from traditional for-hire transportation. “[Uber] operated illegally, and the reason they used to be illegal was because they were not following any of the established local taxicab rules,” Sutton explains. “They often have more lenient rules for the exact same taxicab service.”
One of the biggest criticisms of Uber is that it doesn’t use fingerprint background checks. Instead, Uber vets its drivers through a screening process conducted by private company Checkr that looks into criminal records dating back seven years. A rep for Uber told me over the phone that the company’s background check scans national, state, and local criminal records, and that Uber believes it stacks up well against fingerprint background checks required for taxicab drivers. The rep also said that their screening process retrieves the most up-to-date information, and that Uber has not seen a difference in the accident rates between drivers who have been fingerprinted versus those who have not.
But according to Sutton, the lack of fingerprint background checks has contributed to compromising passengers’ safety. “Uber’s background checks can only go back seven years, so they will approve people who have violent criminal histories prior to that time,” he explains. “For example, there was a woman who was just allegedly raped in Tennessee and the driver had a violent criminal history, but it was going back 10 years prior. Do you want to ride with this individual even though the crime happened 10 years ago? I don’t think so. There’s a huge difference between what a private company background check can do and what a government criminal background check can see.”
Today, more states and cities are pushing for more stringent guidelines. “What’s really happening is that cities are going back and tightening up the regulations,” says Sutton. “The laws that they passed originally were too loose, and now people are being hurt.” In December 2014, the district attorneys of Los Angeles and San Francisco filed a lawsuit that alleged Uber was misleading passengers about safety and background checks, which the ride-sharing company advertised as “industry-leading” driver screening practices. In August 2015, in an amended complaint filed, California prosecutors alleged that the background checks failed to weed out 25 drivers with criminal records, including convictions for murder, assault, sex offenses, and child abuse. (Uber coughed up $10 million to settle the background check lawsuit this past April.)
now, we also gotta look over our shoulder every time we walk into a car.
Last week, Austin rejected a proposal by Uber and Lyft to self-regulate their drivers and ordered fingerprint background checks and symbols on cars. Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are all fighting for fingerprint background checks. Still, Sutton says that, for the most part, Uber and Lyft have been able to “convince many states and cities to regulate them differently, more leniently.”
This isn’t the case in New York City. In New York City—but not all of New York state—Uber operates under the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), and is subject to the same rules that are imposed on taxicabs and other for-hire transportation services. “The driver is licensed, the vehicle is licensed, and the base that dispatches them are all separately licensed in order to maintain what I call a ‘chain of accountability’ between all three entities,” explains Allan J. Fromberg, TLC’s deputy commissioner for public affairs. According to him, drivers are fingerprinted for a criminal background check (Houston is the only other city that requires this screening process for Uber drivers), which the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services told us are scanned against any New York state records that date back decades and are provided to them by either an arresting agency or a court.
Additionally, Uber drivers are also drug tested, vehicles must have insurance and are inspected three times a year, and bases must provide certain consumer protections that meet TLC’s requirements. On the occasion that an incident does occur, the TLC investigates the situation. “With the TLC, if it was a truly egregious violation, we have the ability to suspend or evoke that driver’s license after due process,” notes Fromberg. The examination process is likely to be smoother because the TLC has access to all of the drivers’ information. “One of the primary advantages of our fingerprint background checking system is that it allows us ongoing monitoring, 24/7, 365,” says Fromberg. “If one of our licensees is arrested, we are instantly notified. We have ongoing monitoring whereas other forms of background checks do not have that advantage.”
When Jessica was allegedly assaulted by an Uber driver in New York City, she contacted the TLC and found the organization much more useful than Uber. “When Uber wasn’t willing to help, I went to the TLC,” she says. “And they were very helpful. Uber was very nice and apologetic on the phone, but they didn’t want to give me the driver’s information. They were so adamant about not being that type of company. They were trying to do everything they could to basically brush it under the rug. In the end, Uber just gave me a refund for my ride.”
She adds: “I remember talking to someone from Uber for a long time,” says Jessica. “The guy I was talking to tried to be friendly, to be my friend and listen to what I had to say. But that was it. The conversations didn’t go anywhere. They were just pretty much there to listen and to let me know that they’re there for me if I needed someone to talk to.”
When asked about protocol for riders who have allegedly been assaulted by an Uber driver, an Uber rep told me that they suggest passengers contact them within the app. If it’s an emergency, they should call 911—which, according to the rep, is what the police insisted they communicate to passengers. The rep also said that Uber has a law enforcement response team that’s available 24/7, and that Uber works closely with the police on investigations.
Sutton believes that because Uber drivers are required to undergo fingerprint background checks in New York City and because the service is regulated by an agency like the TLC, New York City is one of the safer places where the ride-sharing company operates. “New York City has not allowed any funny business or has not allowed a separate model,” he says. “Lyft tried to come in an operate and the TLC shut them down in two days, saying you cannot do this. That’s why New York City is a special case…. New York City has put all the same requirements on these drivers as they would other for-hire drivers, immediately recognizing that there’s no difference. We believe that New York City was able to do this because it’s got one of the most lucrative markets.”
There is no direct statistic to support this claim—an NYPD rep told us that stats about assaults and sexual assaults reported to the police aren’t sorted in such a way to specify which instances involved an Uber driver. But, of the 100-plus reported stories of alleged sexual assaults and harassment by Uber drivers in the United States tracked by Who’s Driving You?, only three occurred in New York City.
Still, Sutton says Uber’s safety procedures and requirements aren’t perfect. Currently, the ride-sharing app requires its drivers to display a flashing blue “U” sign on the passenger side windshield while they’re logged on to the Uber system. But Sutton says more explicit indicators on the exterior of Uber vehicles are needed. “We’ve seen a lot of women get hurt by Uber impersonators,” he explains. “It’s so easy to impersonate being an Uber driver that passengers jump in vehicles, end up allegedly being kidnapped, raped, and robbed.” Since 2013, Who’s Driving You? has tracked 17 stories involving a person allegedly pretending to be an Uber driver. “Their vehicles need to have symbols that can’t be faked. It’s so easy to print out the decal.” An Uber rep told us they don’t have any plans of imposing symbols on the outer bodies of vehicles yet, and that they encourage passengers to check the license plate number, model of the car, and photo of the driver. In other words: The burden of safety falls on the passenger rather than the provider.
Installing a phone number would also benefit passengers. This past March, Uber confirmed with Inc. that the company was trying out a new emergency phone line in 22 cities that passengers could reach by dialing 800-353-UBER. The “Critical Safety Response Line,” as it was called, wasn’t shared with drivers or riders because Uber wanted to see if it was discoverable. The number doesn’t replace 911 and instead takes the caller through to one of two call centers—one in Chicago, the other in Phoenix—that can deal with passengers or drivers’ problems that are urgent but do not require emergency services. During an interview, an Uber rep told me that the number is still in the testing stages, and not yet finalized. “It’s a terrible way to run a business,” notes Sutton. “It’s completely irresponsible.”
An Uber rep told us that the passenger and driver’s safety are of top priority to the company. A GPS tracking function allows riders to share their location with a text message. Uber’s safety teams investigates incidents or issues reported to them. The customer support team is available 24/7 via e-mail. Drivers and riders’ contact information are private, and phone numbers are disguised as generic numbers that expire after five minutes. But, that may not be enough.
“People love Uber because it’s so convenient and it’s fast,” says Jessica. “But we’re in 2016 and we still gotta look over our shoulder when we’re walking at night. And now, we also gotta look over our shoulder every time we walk into a car.”
*Some names have been changed.