May 30, 2018
The latest target of the #MeToo campaign can likely be found on your phone.
Actress Pamela Anderson released her second public service announcement in partnership with two safety organizations to call on ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft to strengthen background checks on drivers. Anderson shot the public service announcement with PAVE, a nonprofit fighting violence against women, and Ride Responsibly, an initiative by the The National Limousine Association (which clearly has a vested interest against ride-sharing apps).
“When I first embarked on my quest to raise awareness about the safety risks associated with ride-hailing apps, I had no idea of the frequency or disturbing nature of the incidents,” Anderson said in her PSA. “These apps are optimized for predators and will remain so until common sense safety measures are put in place.” Anderson is best known for her role on the 1990s TV show “Baywatch.”
Lyft said the campaign misleads consumers and noted that its drivers must pass screenings including criminal background and driving-record checks. “There is nothing more important to Lyft than the safety of our drivers and passengers, and we are committed to providing rides people can trust,” a spokeswoman told MarketWatch.
An Uber spokeswoman said Anderson’s new PSA, and a similar one she shot last year, are “misleading.” “Uber has a responsibility to contribute to safety, help fight tough issues and mitigate any incidents,” the spokeswoman said. “That’s why we focus on safety before, during, and after every ride through technology and stand with top organizations in the fight against harassment and assault of women.” Uber drivers go through a “thorough” screening process, including criminal background and driving record checks, the spokeswoman said.
Anderson’s PSA is just the latest call for increased safety measures from Uber. A lawsuit filed in November claimed Uber systematically created an unsafe environment for female passengers. The lawsuit sought class action status on behalf of all U.S. passengers who were “subject to rape, sexual assault or gender-motivated violence or harassment by their Uber driver in the last four years.”
The complaint alleges the company uses “low-cost, woefully inadequate background checks” for drivers and demands a number of changes to make the app safer.
“Uber received this complaint today and we are in the process of reviewing it,” an Uber spokeswoman told MarketWatch in November. “These allegations are important to us and we take them very seriously.”
How could Uber make its service safer?
Some of the demands outlined in the complaint include barring registered sex offenders nationally from becoming Uber drivers, requiring drivers to undergo in-person screening interviews, performing national background checks on drivers every six months, and thorough character checks on prospective drivers that go beyond mere criminal background checks.
Under current Uber regulations, drivers apply online and are required to undergo a background check conducted by a third party company using a legal document like a driver’s license. Unlike a national government background check, these do not require in-person appearances or fingerprints. Harry Campbell, a Lyft and Uber driver and author of the blog “The Rideshare Guy,” said these “lax” background checks will likely lead to more lawsuits in the future.
Comprehensive background checks are at odds with the contractor nature of the rideshare companies, he said, adding that Uber and Lyft “don’t want to do extensive background checks” on each driver. In lawsuits in the U.S. and the U.K., Uber has maintained that its drivers are not employees, but self-employed contractors.
“The perception is that Uber and Lyft are safer than taxis, but they both have their problems,” he said. “Consumers are learning they aren’t as safe as they think they are.”
Yellow cab drivers generally are required to undergo national or FBI background checks involving fingerprint records that include their complete criminal history, while Uber’s background check database only goes back seven years and shows a limited amount of information, Campbell said.
Cities do not keep track of how many assaults occur on public transportation, said Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, so it is difficult to know whether ride-sharing services are safer than traditional yellow cabs.
“Sexual assault and sexual misconduct in any kind of commuter transit is a common and well-documented phenomenon,” she said. “We have to recognize sexual violence is something that permeates all parts of our culture.”
Are women-only rideshare apps the answer?
At least two rideshare companies targeting women have emerged to address the sexual assault problem in the field: Safr and See Jane Go. See Jane Go is available in Orange County and Long Beach, Calif. and they are an all female rideshare company (both drivers and riders). Safr, which is available in Boston, allows both male and female drivers but riders have the option to choose which gender they feel most comfortable riding with.
Besides criminal background checks, Safr also offers additional safety features, including bystander awareness and ride safety training sessions for all drivers. The app is equipped with an SOS button to contact Safr and 911 emergency services.
“Safr is one of the leading rideshare companies that is setting the standards against sexual violence,” said Lilly Kenyon, head of operations at rideshare comparison site Ride Guru. While Uber is at a disadvantage because its background check of drivers only covers 7 years of history, assault can happen anywhere.
There have been multiple reports of sexual assault by yellow cab drivers in New York and other cities, she said. “It seems as though when assault happens in an Uber car, it tends to get more publicity.”
What changes would make vehicles safer?
The lawsuit is also demanding physical changes to the car to encourage safety, including installing tamper-proof video cameras in all Uber vehicles, disabling child lock features on passenger doors of Uber vehicles and including in-app panic buttons on U.S.-based apps that send messages to Uber consumer report, local police and a designated safety contact during a possible assault.
The defendants also are calling on Uber to publicly release the number of assaults that have occurred on rides facilitated by the app. The “Who’s Driving You?’ campaign — which is backed by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association and, therefore, has a vested interest in poaching ridesharing customers — clocked 92 reports of sexual assault and rape by Uber and Lyft drivers in three months of summer in 2017 based on news stories alone. (Lyft did not respond to request for comment).
There have likely been far more incidents since rape is largely underreported, Houser said. But with the rise of the #MeToo campaign surrounding harassment and rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, these reports are bringing the problem to the forefront.
The #MeToo campaign is named in the Uber complaint, with tweets from women alleging assault by Uber drivers added to their examples of how the company has failed women. With a new CEO at Uber and $5 million recently pledged to organizations that prevent sexual assault and domestic violence, Houser said Uber is making some moves towards education — but change needs to be comprehensive.
“We need to keep in mind that prevention is a broad range of behaviors,” she said. “As a company, your culture can be protective against sexual assault or enable it — and when you do nothing you enable it.”