One month into driving for Lyft around Atlanta, Alicia Dukes was sexually assaulted by a passenger on 21 April after she drove him to a gas station and back to his apartment.
“He first asked me if I had any change because he wanted to leave a tip. He ended up finding a $5 bill in his pocket and gave it to me. He then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to come into his house and drink with him. I said no, I’m working right now, can you please leave,” Dukes told the Guardian.
The propositions escalated from offering to pay for sexual favors to insisting on bringing her back to his apartment. “He said we could do it in the car, I said no again. Then he stuck his hand in my shirt, I was pushing him away from me, he grabbed my thighs and front area.”
A passer-by caused the rider to briefly stop, and Dukes quickly unbuckled her seat belt and jumped out of her car, causing the rider to flee. She immediately called the police, and the rider was arrested and issued a restraining order after continuing to harass her on social media. When she reported the incident to Lyft, they offered no assistance other than deactivating the rider’s account.
“Someone emailed me and told me they suspended him from using their platform and that was it,” Dukes added. She hasn’t driven for Lyft since the incident.
A Guardian investigation has revealed numerous other cases where female drivers for Uber and Lyft have experienced safety issues, ranging from sexual assault and harassment to being attacked by riders. In each case, the drivers felt Uber and Lyft offered little to no assistance or support, and that current company policies are inadequate.
“The issue here is: how are the companies taking responsibility for these issues? They’re not protecting passengers well and they’re not protecting drivers well,” said Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver in Los Angeles, California, and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United-LA.
The companies disagree. In an email, a spokesperson for Uber said: “Uber is deeply committed to safety and has a number of safety features in place, including an emergency button with 911 integration technology, trip sharing feature, a critical safety response line, and 24/7 phone support for drivers. There’s nothing more important than the safety of the people we serve”
A spokesperson for Lyft stated: “Safety is fundamental to Lyft. Since day one, we have worked hard to design policies and features that protect both drivers and riders, including Community Guidelines, a two-way rating system, a dedicated Trust & Safety team and in-app emergency assistance. There is no place in the Lyft community for harassment or violence of any kind.”
But such assurances often do not convince drivers who have become victims.
Alexandra Carbone, an Uber and Lyft driver in Los Angeles, had two experiences where drunk male passengers groped her.
In the first experience, a male passenger grabbed her leg. She was able to convince a second passenger, the friend who ordered the ride, to take her assaulter home with them.
In the second incident, a drunk male passenger tried to put his arm around her shoulder, and was irate when she turned down his advances.
“When I dropped him off, he wanted to shake my hand. I didn’t want to shake his hand, but I also didn’t want him to get angry and kick my car, so I shook his hand and it was really slimy,” she said.
Since Uber slashed wages for drivers in Los Angeles Carbone has driven much less, but still feels Uber and Lyft need support systems for drivers in unsafe situations. There could be a panic button where someone from support can immediately be contacted and present on the phone rather than relying on 911 emergency services .
Other drivers noted riders don’t adhere to the same background checks and identity verification as drivers, making it difficult to report incidents to the police. Riders can use fake names and make accounts without photos. Riders who have their rides bought for them by someone else provide even less information.
In San Diego, Terri Beilke, a Lyft driver, had a rider bring a gun into her car on 11 May who then tried to coerce her into driving him around town to do errands. But because a rider purchased the ride for someone else, who brought in the extra passenger with a gun, she didn’t know who to identify to the police.
“This is a common practice for an account holder to do something nice for a friend or stranger even… and by that you’re putting the driver in jeopardy,” Beilke said.
She called the police after the rider left her car, but she was told they couldn’t do anything because there was no way to identify him. It took Lyft five days for someone to contact her from their critical response safety line.
“My suggestion to them was to put a feature in the app, that if a rider is going to order a ride for something else, that person has to upload identification so I can verify it before they get in my car. If that had happened, I could have let the police know who did this,” said Bielke.
In March 2019, Anja Holthoff, an Uber driver in Atlanta, Georgia, was assaulted by a rider after she refused to drive the rider’s son, unaccompanied and without a booster seat, to elementary school.
“She pulled out a handful of my hair, she spat on me, kicked my car,” Holthoff said. She called the police and the rider was arrested, but Uber offered no support or assistance.
“They said the incident report team would get back to me and all they did was send me a standard email.”
“When I told them about the incident, I was told they still had to hear the passenger’s side. I said she was in jail.”