Uber Sexual Assault Report Spurs Calls for New Government Policies

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Route Fifty on 12/8/2019 by Emma Coleman

New data released by Uber showing almost 6,000 sexual assaults in last two years is prompting some officials to call for new requirements on ride-hailing companies to improve safety.

Stories of people assaulted in ride-hailing vehicles have made frequent headlines in recent years, prompting calls from policymakers for companies to release data on the number of riders and drivers who have been victims of crime.

Uber made good on its May 2018 promise to release that data last week, releasing a report that covers all assault claims and violent crime that happened in its cars or shortly after a ride in the U.S. From 2017 to 2018, there were 5,981 claims of sexual assault, 19 fatal physical assaults and 107 fatalities because of crashes.

Among those who died from assaults, eight victims were riders, seven were drivers and four were third parties. Uber did not release information on who committed the violence.

Sexual assault victims were nearly evenly divided between riders and drivers, with passengers accounting for 45% of the “accused parties” in sexual assault cases. The most frequent reports received by the company were for unwanted touching of sexual parts of the body, with 1,440 reports in 2017 and 1,560 in 2018. Uber also received 235 reports of rape last year and 229 the year before. The company also collected information on less serious interactions, like non-consensual kissing of a non-sexual body part, which totaled 1,164 reports.

Lyft has made a promise to release similar safety data but has not yet done so. Nineteen women sued the company last week, alleging that Lyft did not take adequate precautions to protect them from assault and then mishandled their cases.

In releasing the data—which was collected by in-app reporting, the company’s 24/7 crisis response line, social media mentions, and third-party reports from lawsuits and law enforcement—Uber stressed that cases were opened in a minute percentage of the company’s 2.3 billion rides in the U.S. during the two-year time period. Instances of non-consensual touching of sexual body parts, for instance, were reported in only one out of every 800,000 rides. Rapes were reported in one out of every five million trips.

After the data was Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said on Twitter that the release of the report is only the beginning. “I suspect many people will be surprised at how rare these incidents are; others will understandably think they’re still too common,” he wrote. “Some people will appreciate how much we’ve done on safety; others will say we have more work to do. They will all be right.”

Some policymakers have indeed pointed to the report while lamenting the lack of control that federal and local governments have over safety in ride-hailing services.

In an interview with WNYC, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Uber’s track record on sexual assault is just part of a larger problem of degregulation. “Much less regulated vehicles create more danger,” he said. “And one of the things we had from the beginning with the yellow cab industry, and green cabs, is they were highly regulated for safety. There was lots of eyes on the situation, lots of requirements, and lots of guarantees for the customers … These ride-sharing companies were very fast and loose on questions of safety.”

There isn’t a direct comparison of safety between ride-hailing options like Uber and traditional taxes. In 2015, 14 out of the 166 reported rapes committed by strangers in New York City took place in taxis, and in 2016, members of the Taxi and Limousine Commission implemented rule changes for taxi licensing that made sexual harassment and assault training a requirement for taxi drivers.

Uber has improved the safety functionality on its apps over the past few years, adding an emergency call function, a data-sharing system for sending information about a ride to friends and family, as well as a feature that anonymizes riders and drivers’ phone numbers and deletes pickup and dropoff addresses from drivers’ apps after a ride is complete.

In 60 cities, Uber riders can now push an emergency button that immediately sends 911 operators information about the car, driver, and location. On Monday, Uber launched a feature in seven cities that gives riders a four-digit code that they can confirm with drivers to ensure they are getting into the right car. Next year, Uber will launch a survivor support hotline run by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

U.S. Representative from Oregon Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, praised Uber for its safety improvements and for releasing data, but said in a statement that the company needs to do more “to establish formal policies, training, and reporting structures” to deal with sexual assault. “Merely releasing this information will not be enough … As a country, we must ensure safety is a priority, and make it clear that sexual assault and harassment will not be tolerated anywhere, no matter where it occurs.”

Last month, DeFazio introduced legislation that would track incidents of sexual assault on different modes of transportation, including airlines, public transit, and ride-hailing apps. He said the committee has also discussed requiring fingerprint background checks for drivers, a system already in place in his district in Eugene, Oregon. The city now imposes more strict background checks on Uber and Lyft drivers, and in September found two dozen drivers who passed Uber’s background check system but failed the local one, including a person who had been convicted of murder and a registered sex offender.

A policy of mandatory fingerprint background checks is supported by other policymakers, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, who told the New York Times that “ride-hailing companies have been abjectly failing in their duty to protect against predators or criminals.”

Karen Baker, the CEO of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, which Uber partnered with to create the report, said in a statement that the report will provide a solid base for policymakers and advocates to work from. “All too often we have seen institutions respond to this reality by dismissing, denying, and downplaying the data and the broader problem,” she said. “Efforts like this embolden our work for a safer future.”