Uber and Lyft Drivers Work Dangerous Jobs—But They’re on Their Own
Harry Campbell was driving a man home one night when, upon stopping at a light, the passenger stripped off all of his clothes, ran naked around the car, and then got back in as if nothing at all had happened. Odd, yes, but just another night as an Uber driver. Even now, Campbell is nonplussed. “I think it was a dare,” he says. “Every driver has a story like that”
Or worse. Uber horror stories are nothing new. But most of them are stories about passengers victimized by drivers. Such headlines are hardly exclusive to Uber: plenty of sharing economy ventures bring their share of cautionary tales.
What gets far less attention is the abuse, verbal and physical, that drivers endure. In November, a shocking video of a drunken Taco Bell executive beating an Uber driver went viral. More recently, a witness filmed a Miami doctor trying to kick a driver before trashing his car. And these are just a few incidents that made headlines. No matter what you call it, providing rides to strangers carries the risk of harassment and violence—it’s why your parents told you never to pick up hitchhikers. But while the risk to passengers of using ridesharing services has been widely debated, the risk to drivers has been largely ignored.
Just how great a risk drivers face is difficult to quantify. Because the ridesharing industry is so new, and laws regulating it so patchwork, official figures are tough to come by, and the big companies don’t share specifics about incidents their drivers report. Still, online forums for drivers brim with descriptions of attacks on drivers by passengers, both verbal and physical, such as a driver posted a video of being spit on and punched.
You might think ridesharing companies would be doing everything they can to ensure driver safety. But it turns out what they can do is limited by the kind of businesses they are. Because drivers operate as independent contractors instead of employees, the companies can’t offer true safety training. Under federal law, training is a signifier that someone is an employee, and both Uber and Lyft have fought bitterly against re-classifying drivers as employees. By the very nature of how on-demand businesses operate today, drivers in many ways have to go it alone.
When it comes to threats to driver safety, Lyft says it “keeps detailed records” whenever it’s contacted about a ride-related incident. Uber also says it tracks incidents involving the safety of drivers. But the companies declined to share specific numbers.
Still, if ridesharing companies don’t make their figures public, federal regulators do. “Taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers,” the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in 2010. In a 2014 report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that of 3,200 3,200 taxi drivers who were hurt or killed on the job, 180 sustained injuries caused by a violent person—about 5.6 percent.
It isn’t that ridesharing companies aren’t aware of the risk. Seemingly in response to some of the more outrageous recent incidents, Uber recently tested a “toy” intended to distract drunk, obnoxious passengers: a Bop-It, a puzzle-type game that drivers put in their backseats.
“Our pilot with Bop-Its, we thought ‘OK maybe in certain contexts, it would be a good idea to entertain people so they’re in a better mood and … going in a direction that might not be helpful,” says Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer. In other markets, he says Uber is testing mirrors that face passengers—the idea is that seeing yourself behaving like an ass might prompt you to stop behaving like an ass. Uber concedes these ideas might sound silly, but the point is that it’s constantly seeking high as well as low-tech ways of keeping everyone in the car safe.
But some drivers remain skeptical. “It’s kind of stupid to think they can pacify a bunch of drunk passengers with a Bop-It versus investing in real safety measures,” says Campbell, who runs The Rideshare Guy, a popular blog about driving for Uber and Lyft.
Fending for Themselves
Of course, drivers do have some control over just how much risk they take on. They can choose not to work in the wee hours or to avoid those parts of town where they may not feel safe. They can also try not to pick up passengers at bars and other locales. And many drivers do just that, even though it may cut into their pay.
But these precautions don’t guarantee that drivers won’t find themselves in a sketchy situation. The geolocation feature in the Uber and Lyft apps aren’t always 100 percent precise; a driver who thinks he’s headed toward a well-lit location may find himself instead driving down a dark alley. And abusive jerks don’t come out only at night, nor are they found only in bars. As it turns out, picking up strangers in your car is an inherently risky job.
And that leaves drivers to fend for themselves—which in a sense also makes them the real experts on their own safety, at least those who’ve put in time on the road. “They’re the ones who’ve been in the cars for tons of nights, and they’re the people we want to learn from and help them connect with other drivers,” says Uber’s Sullivan. “We see it happening informally at driver support centers and in forums.”
But that’s not enough for some drivers.
“When you get into a taxi, there’s a reason there’s plexiglass between you and the driver,” Campbell says.
Reputation for Safety
When app-based ridesharing started, companies pitched themselves as better than cabs in every way—friendlier, cleaner, and safer. Logins via Facebook or the apps themselves provided a measure of comfort for everyone, because they made drivers’ and passengers’ identities known to each other. Rating systems were intended to provide further peace of mind. If someone was a jerk, whether driver or passenger, eventually they’d be booted off the platform.
But ridesharing has exploded in popularity since then, and those reputation-based safety measures aren’t keeping pace. It’s one thing when you have a small group of passengers and drivers tracking each other. But when countless drivers and passengers are joining and leaving the system every day, reputation-based systems become less compelling. It’s entirely possible that a four or five-star passenger has a bad day or too much to drink. And drivers, drawn by the lure of surge pricing, might put aside their reservations and decide to pick up that obviously intoxicated guy at 2:30 am.
To keep up with demand, to grow at the pace expected of venture-backed tech startups, and to compete with each other, Uber and Lyft are in a constant race to recruit and retain drivers. And some drivers say that haste can make their own safety feel like an afterthought. Drivers get a few tips on how to look out for themselves, but these are easily overlooked or soon forgotten in the haste to get more drivers on the road.
“Uber does no training at all. I never felt safe driving for Uber,” says one former driver who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his current job and the possibility of going back to driving.
The driver, who says he has worked in Seattle and Southern California, said he carried a gun for safety while driving in Washington State, where he had a concealed carry permit. He quit carrying a gun upon moving to California because the state doesn’t allow it.
The driver says he often drove in the same area in and around Newport Beach where the Taco Bell exec allegedly attacked Uber driver Edward Caban. (The executive, Benjamin Goldman, is suing Caban for $5 million, claiming Caban illegally recorded the assault.) He called it quits shortly after hearing about the attack. “At that point, it wasn’t worth it for me at all.”
Old-school taxi drivers know certain safety-related tricks of the trade, like turning off the car, grabbing your keys, and stepping out of the vehicle before kicking out a passenger—that way they can’t attack you from behind. Many cities require cab companies to expressly inform drivers about the risks associated with driving a cab and how to handle violent or unruly passengers. Cab drivers may receive fairly rigorous training, which includes a discussion of safety. Taxis themselves are often fitted with standard safety precautions such as plexiglass dividers and video cameras. Some also have GPS units installed directly in vehicles, which are much harder to remove or switch off than GPS in a phone.
San Francisco law requires that taxis come equipped with video cameras and that cabs advertise clearly that passengers are being recorded, says Bob Cassinelli, a spokesman for Yellow Cab San Francisco. “We take the approach that nobody wants to be seen behaving badly on a camera and tell people, ‘Look you’re being recorded, keep that in mind,’” he says. “We approach these things on a preventative basis.” The company says that assaults against drivers declined after it started installing cameras in cars.
Ridesharing companies are less concrete when describing precautions taken on behalf of drivers.
Lyft spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna says safety is “top priority.”
“For drivers who feel uncomfortable with their passenger, we encourage them to stop and end the ride,” she says. “We also have a trust and safety team available 24/7 for emergencies and a dedicated critical response line to immediately reach specially trained experts on the phone.”
Dorothy Chou, who works on Uber’s public policy team, says safety is built into the product, providing a level of protection to drivers that didn’t used to exist, largely thanks the app. She points to standard features meant to prioritize driver safety, including GPS-tracking and Uber’s ratings system, which allows drivers to know who’s in a vehicle and whether a passenger is a problem. Cashless payments, meanwhile, reduces the possibility of being robbed on site.
She also says Uber gives drivers tips on high-traffic holidays like Halloween and New Year’s Eve on how to handle unruly riders. Still, the recent experiments with Bop-Its and mirrors suggest Uber is aware there’s more to be done. Among other things, the company is hiring a behavioral scientist to focus on safety.
Still, ridesharing companies’ independent contractor business models only allow them to do so much to ensure driver safety. True training would put that employment classification at risk and bolster claims that drivers should be made full employees. And employee status that would have huge financial implications for the companies for things like unemployment benefits, health insurance, taxes, lawsuits, and liability, says Stefani Johnson, an assistant professor of human resources at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.
“The more control … a company has over its workers, the more likely a court is to uphold that those workers are employees rather than independent contractors,” says Johnson. “Offering training to employees enhances the employee-employer relationship because the company has greater control over the drivers.”
What might better safety measures look like? Campbell suggests offering drivers free or heavily subsidized dash cams—something he’s long suggested every Uber driver buy. (Sullivan says Uber is always looking at new pilots, but hasn’t decided to do one with dash cams yet.) Companies can also make absolutely clear to passengers that abusing drivers in any way will not be tolerated and will get them quickly banned—and not just when a video of a drunken moron attacking a driver goes viral.
“I do think with the high publicity stuff, they take the driver’s side really quickly,” says Campbell of Uber’s handling of the Taco Bell exec and Miami cases. “They support the driver, they kick the passenger off the platform.”
But for the everyday cases that don’t get thousands of views, he believes ridesharing companies can do more: “They haven’t really put their money where their mouth is.” The only problem: doing more could cost them a lot more money.