After Rape Claim Against Driver in India, We Ask: Is Uber Safe?

Are you risking your life by taking a car service? (Thinkstock)

For years private drivers and black Town Cars were reserved for the Hollywood elite and VIPs. But, with the advent of apps like Uber, having a ride at your beck and call has never been easier or more affordable. But as the popularity of this service rises, so do the safety concerns. More and more stories are coming to light about situations in which passengers found themselves in less-than-desirable and even dangerous situations, sometimes fearing for their lives. So, how safe is Uber?

Just last weekend, a woman in New Delhi reported that she was raped by her Uber driver. In that case, it came out that the driver had been charged with rape before, and he forged a reference letter to work with Uber. In fact, Uber drivers in India say that for the equivalent of $130, drivers can have their backgrounds cleaned up. Uber has since been blacklisted in the country.

Related: The Age of Uber: How Safe Are Ride-Share Services?

But the problems are not just halfway across the world.

This week the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys announced they will file suit against Uber, claiming the company is misleading users by saying it uses “an industry-leading background-check process,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said, when it does not fingerprint its drivers. The company’s criminal checks are thus “completely worthless. The company repeats this misleading statement, giving consumers a false sense of security when deciding whether to get into a stranger’s car,” he explains.

The suit comes after a Los Angeles Uber driver was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a drunken woman and taking her to a motel in June. And in March 2014, a Chicago woman sued Uber after one of its drivers refused to follow directions, and harassed and extensively groped her.

(Photo: Uber/Facebook)

Started in 2012, Uber offers different levels of drivers at different price points. UberBlack was the original service and consisted of certified chauffeurs licensed by their respective cities. Another version, UberX, emerged, which provides a cheaper option that is close to, if not less than, a cab fare and is staffed by everyday citizens with a car and a driver’s license. While this offers a great opportunity to make extra money as a driver or have cost-effective door-to-door service as a passenger, the biggest concern for many is the lack of thorough vetting from the company. “It is incredibly easy to be a driver,” says Rachael Speakman, an Uber driver in Massachusetts. “All you need is a car 2004 or newer, with four doors. You do have to submit a background check, send a photo of your license, registration, and proof of insurance, but I was able to do it all from my iPhone. Within a week they sent me an iPhone loaded with the Uber driver software to use.”

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“Whether riding in an Uber car or hailing a traditional taxi, it’s important to remember you are still accepting a ride from a stranger. And when you put yourself in a vehicle with a stranger there’s definitely a risk,” says David Nance, personal safety expert. Background checks, especially if they are bogus, don’t stop someone from committing a crime, says Nance, “so you need to take personal precautions.”

The main thing to keep in mind whenever using these services is that if something doesn’t feel right you should pay attention to your gut and any warning signs — whether it’s a look, body language, or something else — and extract yourself from the situation. “Ask to pull over to a gas station or convenience store, or say you feel sick and ask to get out,” says David. “Coming up with a practical excuse can get you out of the situation.”

Riders should also never get into an Uber car they didn’t order. And they should take advantage of the Uber app’s “share your ETA” feature, which texts people you’ve selected your estimated time of arrival and a live map that shows exactly when you’ll get to your destination. This real-time feature can alert those closest to you if something seems to be going wrong. There’s also the feedback from passengers, which the company says they take very seriously, and depending on the circumstances, may lead to deactivating a driver from the system.

As much as passengers need to take safety into their own hands, the company providing the service must take responsibility as well. “The company should do everything they possibly can to ensure the safety of their customers,” says Nance. “They should have systems in place to prevent or limit crimes from being committed.” Uber’s website states that it is “committed to connecting you to the safest ride on the road” and has taken these concerns seriously and now offer several ways increase the level of your security and comfort.

In fact, Uber claims it has actually helped create a safer environment in certain cities — for example, DUI rates have fallen in Philadelphia since Uber’s arrival. And the timing of the company’s launch in Chicago has shown a favorable correlation with the decline of crimes taking place in taxis.

Despite the company’s safety issues (as well as recent bad press for an Uber senior vice president suggesting that the company hire a team to dig into the personal lives and backgrounds of media figures who reported negatively about Uber, and Spain’s banning of Uber due to unfair competition for taxi drivers), business is still booming! Last week, Uber raised $1.2 billion from a number of investors, including sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investment Authority, New Enterprise Associates, and hedge funds Valiant Capital Partners and Lone Pine Capital, making the company now worth $41 billion.

“The reality is that tens of thousands of rides are being completed every month on the platform,” a spokesperson for Uber has said. “That’s because the model works. People love it.”

All the more reason to watch closely to see how the safety concerns and lawsuits pan out.

Video: Is Uber Misleading Customers?

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