Uber has been grappling sexism and sexual assault controversies for years now. After revealing its first safety report, the car service disclosed that users reported 3,045 sexual assaults, of those 235 were rapes, during rides last year. There were also nine murders and 58 people were killed in car accidents.
The number of outright tragedies reported is less than one percent of total Uber rides, which reached 1.3 billion rides in the United States in 2018, according to the company. Nevertheless, officials at Uber were unsettled by the number of crimes and tragedies.
Uber relies on the fact that it is accessible and ubiquitous to drivers and riders.
Like other ride-hailing apps, including Lyft and Via, the lynchpin of Uber’s business model is an egalitarian approach to who can use it. This means regulations are often ditched in favor of allowing any driver with a car to work for the company. It means these drivers aren’t screened, and in New York City they don’t require a Taxi medallion like traditional yellow cab drivers.
When employees (and customers for that matter) aren’t properly audited, sexual assaults, attacks, and murders can become all too common. Uber maintains that the crimes and tragedies aren’t a reflection of Uber’s policies but of society’s.
“The numbers are jarring and hard to digest,” Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer told the New York Times. “What it says is that Uber is a reflection of the society it serves.”
When the New York Times checked Uber’s safety record against the New York Police Department’s registery of sex crimes and rapes on the city’s transit systems, 553 assaults were reported in 2018.
There were trends among which crimes drivers committed and which were committed against them.
While 92 percent of rape victims were riders, murder victims tended to be drivers, riders and other parties. However, both drivers and riders reported other forms of sexual assault at about the same rate, according to Uber’s report. The report categorizes sexual assault into 21 categories that range from unwanted touching to attempted rape to rape.
“Confronting sexual violence requires honesty, and it’s only by shining a light on these issues that we can begin to provide clarity on something that touches every corner of society,” the company’s chief legal officer, Tony West, said in the executive summary of the report. “The moment is now for companies to confront it, count it, and work together to end it.”
In April a woman filed a $10 million lawsuit against Uber claiming she was sexually assaulted by her driver and as a result is suing the company for negligence and consumer protection violations, according to The Verge. At least 31 drivers have been convicted of various related offenses like assault, rape, false imprisonment and other crimes, according to CNN. Last year, a pedestrian was killed after being hit by a self-driving Uber car. In 2017, an engineer at the company exposed Uber’s corporate culture as sexist leading to an investigation where dozens of employees were fired.
Uber has begun implementing more steps to protect passengers and drivers.
Uber’s reputation has been overshadowed by seemingly countless incidences of sexual assaults and the report has not pacified all of their critics. Nevertheless, many are praising the company for disclosing such information warts and all.
“The more that the public is aware, the more the company and everyone else has to respond,” Jeanne Christensen, whose law firm represented rape victims in cases against Uber, told the New York Times. “It’s such a part of daily life that everyone is going to take it. We’re already at that point. So now they just have to make it as safe as possible.”
Uber has been taking steps over the past 21 months to document and prevent more safety violations. In the app, they added a panic button so that passengers can directly call 911 and provide them with their location. Riders can also use check-ins if their driver appears to be taking a suspicious route.
“All of those steps are starters because these ride-hailing companies have been abjectly failing in their duty to protect against predators or criminals,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told the New York Times.
The company has partnered with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to determine its best course of action. Since 2017, the company has tripled the staff of its safety team with continued expansion expected. In 2020, it will roll out a hotline with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
“The numbers in the report are not surprising because sexual violence permeates all aspects of our society, whether that’s ride-share or Metro or taxi or a workplace,” Allison Randall of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told Washington Post. “This is definitely the start of a conversation.”
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