Rough ride-share: why drivers are also at risk of violence
Here’s a tip for ride-share drivers: don’t skimp on the weapons. So says Orlando Starr, a gig-economy road warrior who clocks 850 billable miles a week in south Florida. In a YouTube monologue, the self-proclaimed “Angry Uber Driver” takes stock of the arsenal concealed in his 2016 Honda Civic: knives, ice picks, baseball bat, stun gun, mace, brass knuckles, billy club, laser, a high velocity pellet gun and – just in case –nunchucks.
Why all the firepower? Because if you pick up enough strangers, sooner or later, an unfortunate incident will unfold. Or, as Starr warns in the video: “Some crazy motherfuckers are going to act up in your Uber.”
Uber’s first-ever US safety report does nothing to dispel this notion. Released last December, the 84-page document examines data collected from the popular ride-share platform in 2017 and 2018. Although Uber drivers are often assumed to be predators, the statistics seeded throughout this report suggests the opposite scenario occurs almost as often.
Sexual assault was the most common transgression in the Uber report, with 5,981 cases documented over the two-year period. Of the 3,045 assaults logged in 2018 (up from 2,936 in 2017), 235 were rapes. The rest were classified as various levels of physical aggression, ranging from groping to unwanted kissing. Here’s the kicker: 42% of those who reported sexual assault were Uber drivers, not passengers.
Bryant Greening is the co-founder of LegalRideshare, a law firm that specializes in Uber and Lyft accidents and injuries. “Crimes against ride-share drivers are grossly underreported. We get calls every day from drivers who have been victimized by passengers. It’s much more common than anybody really understands.”
He rattles off a caseload that sounds like a career criminal rap sheet: sexual harassment, sexual battery, stabbings, armed robbery, express kidnapping (emptying a driver’s bank account, via ATM, at gunpoint), grand theft auto (also at gunpoint). “I’m dealing with a murder case right now: the driver arrives as a gang altercation erupts on the street – shots fired, driver killed,” he says before adding, “You wouldn’t believe the stories I hear.”
Benjamin Golden, a Taco Bell executive in Orange county, California, lost his job after the video showing him repeatedly punching an Uber driver went viral. Last May, Lyft driver Eduardo Madiedo was pummeled by a deranged man during a trip to a New York hospital. The video of that attack made national news.
Angela, an Uber driver in Sacramento who prefers to remain anonymous, says war stories like this are routine stuff. She describes being assaulted by an “extremely intoxicated” client on a deserted mountain road at 1am: “I stopped so he could vomit. Next thing I know, he’s cursing and grabbing my wrist. I punched him, drove away, and started to cry.” To make matters worse, she also found a box-cutter (“with the blade out”) on the back seat later that night. Angela claims that Uber mishandled her case. “Their response was ‘Just rate him a 1, and we won’t pair that passenger with you any more.’ I said: ‘You shouldn’t pair that passenger with anybody – he should be banned from the platform!’”
To their credit, both Uber and Lyft have recently developed new software to protect their drivers. Press the “emergency button” on Uber’s driver app and key details, like location, license plate and car model are automatically sent to a 911 dispatcher. There’s also a new “selfie check” feature, which enables a driver to match a photo with a face before the passenger gets in their car. “We are deeply committed to safety, and constantly working to improve,” said an Uber spokesperson. “Helping drivers and riders get from A to B safely is a huge responsibility we don’t take lightly.” Lyft has launched a similar suite of security app layers.
Despite these digital precautions, Angela’s anxiety still lingers. Maybe that’s because not all Uber trips start off with a selfie check-in. “The guy that attacked me wasn’t even the account holder – his friend ordered the ride. That happens about 25% of the time. The idea that I don’t even know who’s sitting in my car is crazy.”
Some drivers have adopted the taxicab mainstay of plexiglass partitions. Others settle for a dash-cam video camera. Security experts rate these inexpensive units high on their list of crime stoppers – when passengers notice that tiny LED light flashing up front, they usually think twice before doing something stupid or illegal. Then again, that beating dished out by the Taco Bell executive was shot by a dash-cam.
Uber drivers in the US can take solace knowing things could be far worse. In India, Brazil and Mexico, for example, Uber customers have the option of paying withcash. The same is true for some countries in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This means in over 400 cities across 51 countries, lots of Uber drivers are carrying large wads of bills. Analysis by Reuters indicates that Uber robberies in São Paulo increased tenfold when it began accepting cash in 2016. Police reports show that taxi robberies in the city increased by only a third during that same period.
According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, 13% of Uber’s 2018 global gross bookings were paid with cash. That’s $6.5bn, making Uber drivers soft targets for hardened criminals. In 2019, a couple in New Delhi were arrested for robbing and killing an Uber driver. The victim was strangled, his body dismembered. The bloody parcels were found in a sewer. In Johannesburg, “Uber gangs” use the company app to kidnap women. Many are robbed and raped, some are killed.
Uber crime in Brazil and Mexico is now so rampant that a new safety feature has been baked into the company’s app that allows drivers and passengers to make an audio recording during trips.
An Uber crime in Brazil last December that’s received extensive media coverage involved a gangster ordering the execution of five Uber drivers. His motive? Revenge: the gangster’s sick mother ordered an Uber, but the ride was canceled. In retaliation, four drivers were tortured and killed (one escaped).
Harry Campbell, better known to Uber and Lyft drivers “The Rideshare Guy”, has good news and bad news. First, remember this: driving for Uber is still safer than driving a taxi, a profession that made the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 10 most dangerous jobs list. This doesn’t mean ride-share drivers shouldn’t brush up on their eye-gouging technique. “You hope for the best, but expect the worst,” says Campbell. To validate that warning, he quotes figures from his annual Rideshare Guy survey, a questionnaire blasted out to over 60,000 Uber and Lyft drivers: 53% of Uber drivers said the company needs to do more for driver safety, and 54% of Lyft drivers felt the same way. Here’s a statistic that should make Uber and Lyft nervous: 22% of drivers also reported carrying a weapon while on the job. Some of the respondents admitted to carrying a gun for protection. (Uber bans firearms; Lyft has a stricter “no weapons” policy.)
Don’t judge. Not unless you’ve ever picked up a passenger named “Ghost” in a dark alley at 2am on a Saturday night. Those nunchucks under the seat will come in handy.