Magid: Ride-hailing companies working on safety

Magid: Ride-hailing companies working on safety

There have been plenty of news stories about the dangers of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. To be sure, there are cases where drivers have sexually assaulted or otherwise harmed riders, and any

Larry Magid 

such cases are horrific. However, whenever you’re dealing with human beings, you run the risk of bad apples. That’s also true with doctors, teachers, police officers and, yes, taxi drivers and just about every other profession.

That’s not to let either of these companies off the hook. Whether these drivers are considered employees or contractors, the company that hires them is responsible for their behavior. And even though they have made progress on the safety front, there is always more that can be done.

There is also a risk that a driver can be harmed by a rider, but the ride-hailing companies have at least some protections for both riders and drivers. For one thing, you can’t drive or ride in an Uber or Lyft without being logged in from the app. That’s one protection taxi companies don’t always offer. Drivers have no idea who just walked into their cab. Riders may be able to see the driver’s taxi license in the cab, but those placards could be removed, obscured or faked and, unless you pay by credit or debit card, save the receipt or write down the taxi number, there is no permanent record of who you drove with.  Uber and Lyft don’t provide drivers or riders with a permanent record, but the companies do have access to that information in the event of a subsequent investigation. I also suspect that being a cashless business helps prevent robberies, making it safer for drivers.

In response to complaints, lawsuits and investigations, both Uber and Lyft have beefed up their safety features including background checks, better screening and safety warnings for both drivers and riders. Last year, Uber introduced a 911 button within its app, which could be used in any type of emergency, assuming the passenger has access to the app at the time. Last year, Uber announced a pilot project to have the app automatically send the car’s location to the dispatcher.

This week, Uber rolled out an additional safety feature called RideCheck that sends out a push notification if there is an unexpected long stop or possible accident. The app asks if the rider or driver needs help, provides access to 911 or the Uber Safety Center or to report a crash. I’ve never seen that feature offered by a taxi or limousine company.

In 2015, Uber instituted a Safety Advisory Board. In an email interview, board member Cindy Southworth of the National  Network to End Domestic Violence wrote that “Uber continues to add new safety elements and make existing features easier to access,” and that senior executives meet regularly with her and other Safety Advisory Board members.

Lyft also has safety features that it outlines on its safety center ( These include background checks, a Social Security number trace, a nationwide criminal search, a county court records search, a federal criminal search, as well as a U.S. Department of Justice 50-state sex offender registry search, according to Lyft. The company says it disqualifies any driver whose background check reveals “violent crimes, sexual offenses, or other disqualifying felonies. As of this coming October, Lyft will require all drivers to complete a community safety education course.

Because of all these features, I am reasonably comfortable taking either Uber or Lyft and do so frequently. For the most part, my rides have been positive, though there have been a couple of times when I felt a bit unsafe because of the way the driver was driving. I’ve also had drivers get lost a couple of times and, in Paris, a driver tried to drop me off on a dark street several blocks from my destination. The good part of that and other rides in France and several other non-English speaking countries is that the app helps bridge the language barrier because it allows you to enter your destination instead of your having to try to explain where you’re going.

There are some additional steps riders can take to be safe. First, make sure you’re getting into a real ride-hailing car and not some other car. In April, a University of South Carolina college student was killed after getting into the wrong car, thinking it was her Uber. I make a point of checking the car’s license number, make and model against the one shown on the app and confirming the driver’s name. Of course, I always wear my seat belt, and if I’m uncomfortable about the driving, I usually say something. It’s also important to look around when you get to your destination to make sure you’re in the right place and that it’s safe to exit the car.  I once got out of an Uber only to discover I was dropped off at the wrong location.

There are some changes on the horizon. For one thing, a bill passed by the California legislature will make ride-hailing workers and others in the gig economy employees rather than contractors. In theory that shouldn’t affect safety, but companies are likely to take more responsibility for employee behavior than the behavior of contractors.

A bigger change is the advent of self-driving ride services or – as Elon Musk phrases it, “robotaxis.” I don’t know exactly when robotaxis will replace hired human drivers, but it is likely to happen sometime in the next several years. It’s hard to know whether these self-driven vehicles will be more or less safe, but they will have some impact by taking the human factor out of the safety equation. That means no driver to get into an accident or attack the rider, but it also means no human being in the front seat to make sure all is well. It also introduces the possibility of accidents related to the imperfections of the self-driving technology.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

Published at Thu, 19 Sep 2019 11:00:33 +0000