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Uber riders and drivers share fears about safety after company releases assault numbers

Image: A San Francisco police officer monitors a protest outside of Uber he
A San Francisco police officer monitors a protest outside of Uber headquarters on Aug. 27, 2019. Copyright Justin Sullivan Getty Images file
Copyright Justin Sullivan Getty Images file
By Jason Abbruzzese and Jacob Ward and Chiara Sottile with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Uber noted in its report that assaults happen in a small fraction of rides, but a criminologist called the data "alarming."


Muhammad Rahim has had to talk his wife into letting their teenage daughter use Uber. Then, on Friday, he saw the company's safety report, detailing almost 6,000 reports of sexual abuse in 2017 and 2018."I told her, 'You're right. We're not going to use it,'" said Rahim, 43, who lives in Clearwater, Florida. "I don't care if the statistics are low, I'm not going to take that chance with my daughter."The release of Uber's safety report has sparked concern from some consumers about the frequency of assaults between riders and drivers, adding to the company's years-long battle to convince the public that its service offers more than convenience.Some people have never been convinced."Gosh, no," said Rhonda Chiger, 55, of Toronto, when asked if the report offered any sense that Uber's service was safe. Chiger said she has never been a fan of Uber and she hoped it would push others to avoid the service."I'm hoping that people really take this to heart," she said. "Safety is a top priority."The report comes at a challenging time for Uber. The company is on a tough road to turning a profit, laying off employees and working to repair its brand after sexual harassment allegations within the organization boosted a social media campaign to ditch the service. Its CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, joined in 2017 and promised a new era: "Uber 2.0."The company's meteoric rise in the early 2010s was accompanied by safety concerns. Uber, along with other ride-hailing companies like Lyft and the now-defunct Sidecar, fought state-based efforts to require background checks for drivers — a battle they eventually lost. Uber and Lyft now do continuous background checks on drivers. They have also rolled out other safety features such as easy access to 911 and have teased that others are on the way. Uber has even tested recording audio of trips to enhance security.

A San Francisco police officer monitors a protest outside of Uber headquarters on Aug. 27, 2019.
A San Francisco police officer monitors a protest outside of Uber headquarters on Aug. 27, 2019.Justin Sullivan

The report also provides another example of a major tech company — operating at a scale once inconceivable for pre-internet businesses — issuing a report so full of data that it raises difficult questions: Has modern technology exacerbated societal problems like assault, or has it simply given a previously unavailable level of visibility to them? Is the number of assaults truly infinitesimal, as Uber suggests, or does it indicate a more widespread problem if there are an average of eight sexual assaults in Uber cars every day?Uber noted in its report that assaults happen in a small fraction of rides — 0.0003 percent of trips had a "critical safety incident." The company's chief legal officer, Tony West, pointed to the assaults as a window into the broader problem of sexual assault."Each of those incidents represents an individual who has undergone a horrific trauma," West told NBC News. "But I'm not surprised by those numbers. And I'm not surprised because sexual violence is just much more pervasive in society than I think most people realize."John Roman, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago's NORC, a social research organization, said that is not necessarily true. He noted in particular that violence between strangers is extremely uncommon despite some societal expectations.Roman said it was commendable that Uber released the report but also said the number of assaults compared to overall rides is not a helpful metric. Instead, he said it is essential to understand if people are more or less safe in an Uber than they would be anywhere else in the course of their day. (Lyft has not released any comparable statistics but told NBC News in an email that it would be releasing its own report, though the company did not specify when.)Roman broke down some of the data on Twitter, where he called the numbers "alarming."

Roman noted that Uber is a large company that can exert direct control over its fleet and drivers, detecting and preventing problems on a scale that 1,000 smaller cab companies cannot. Roman added that this kind of assault data is not available for regular taxis, and there is no single taxi company that has comparable reach to Uber."We're so used to thinking about the downsides of technology that we don't look at the upside of technology," he said.But on the other hand, Roman said the core business of Uber and other ride-hailing companies — connecting strangers in tight spaces with no barriers — would logically lead to more violent interactions, especially since the profession of driving is easier for women to enter."You're in somebody's car," Roman said. "It's an intimate setting, and unlike a taxi, there's no divider. You just have more access to each other."A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment for this article but pointed to statistics in the report that attempted to contextualize the broader problem of assault, which included that 81 percent of women report some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime and that only 25 percent of sexual assaults or rapes were reported to the police, according to studies cited by Uber.Riders are not the only people at risk. Uber's study found that riders were the ones accused of attacking drivers in 45 percent of reports of serious sexual assaults. And while Uber has taken steps to protect drivers — even starting to ban riders with low ratings on the platform — people behind the wheel can still feel at risk.Kaylania Chapman, who has worked for a wide variety of gig-economy companies and has a YouTube channel documenting her experiences, said safety is an issue for drivers and riders, but that drivers often feel like they're forgotten."A lot of drivers don't feel safe anymore," she said. "And then you have passengers that feel the same way, but the companies aren't doing that much to ensure the safety of drivers."Chapman noted that women who drive are at particular risk, and that she knows of many female drivers who carry some form of protection, such as mace or even handguns, which is against the rules for Uber drivers.Judah Bell, 48, of Vallejo, California, drives for Uber and said the company seems to favor passenger safety over driver safety. She said she's been the victim of some form of assault or harassment "at least 20 times" in about four years of driving."For a passenger to put their hand between my legs is not uncommon," Bell said.

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