Uber weighs next steps after jarring sex assault report

Cathy Bussewitz and Tom Krisher
Associated Press

New York – A day after Uber revealed that more than 3,000 riders and drivers were sexually assaulted last year while using its service, attention is turning to what’s next for the ride-hailing giant and whether its plans to improve its safety go far enough.

Uber’s report was hailed by victims’ rights organizations for taking a daring step that other companies have so far been unwilling to match. But it’s unclear whether the transparency will help rebuild trust or backfire by showing customers how deep Uber’s safety problems go.

FILE - This Wednesday, June 21, 2017, file photo shows the building that houses the headquarters of Uber, in San Francisco.

In the safety report, Uber said 464 people were raped while using its services in 2017 and 2018. Almost all of them – 99.4% – were riders. It’s difficult to compare those statistics to other modes of transportation, because U.S. taxi companies and transit agencies generally do not collect similar national data.

Even so, many said the report shows Uber has work to do.

“This is a major crisis situation that they’re going to have to deal with because the brand’s built on safety, and even though some could try to say it’s a small number, it’s still way too high – it’s higher than zero – and I think that shows a gap in their screening process,” said Dan Ives, managing director of Wedbush Securities. The revelations give “meat on the bones” to regulators, including those in London who chose not to renew Uber’s license over safety issues, he said.

Uber has been working to improve safety over the last two years, rolling out features including an in-app emergency button, a ride-check feature that detects unexpected stops or crashes and the ability for riders or drivers to share their location during a ride with loved ones. The company outlined additional safety steps it will take in the report.

On Monday, Uber plans to launch in seven cities a feature to give riders a four-digit number that they can use to verify that they are getting into the right car. Next year, it plans to launch a survivor support hotline staffed by RAINN, a sexual violence organization, and to provide sexual misconduct education for drivers. The hotline may encourage more victims to report attacks.

“It creates a safe place for them to come forth and share their experiences and get the support that they need,” said Erinn Robinson, spokeswoman for RAINN.

Critics say Uber should be doing more, particularly with background checks, to weed out potentially dangerous drivers. Unlike many taxi companies, Uber and its main U.S. rival, Lyft, do not check drivers’ fingerprints against a national database.

The gold standard for background checks is fingerprinting “because someone can easily fake a Social Security number,” said Dominique Penson, an attorney who has represented sexual assault victims. “You can’t fake a fingerprint. And if somebody has been convicted of a crime anywhere in the United States, that will appear in an national database, and when you run that fingerprint, you’ll know.”

Dashboard cameras also could help by recording incidents and serving as a deterrent for bad behavior, said Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy, a blog and online community for drivers. Campbell encourages drivers to get cameras, but the ride-hailing companies have not encouraged the practice.

“Even if you have dashcam footage, it’s hard to get Uber and Lyft to actually look at the footage,” Campbell said.

Last month, Uber announced it would allow passengers and drivers in Brazil and Mexico to record audio of their rides

A U.S. House committee is looking at legislation designed to reduce the number of sex assaults involving ride-hailing passengers and drivers, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Friday in an interview.

In Eugene, Oregon, fingerprint checks earlier this year by the local police department found about two dozen Uber and Lyft drivers had criminal records that were missed in the companies’ checks, DeFazio said. One was a convicted murderer, while another was a registered sex offender, according to The Register-Guard newspaper. The city stopped the people from driving for the companies.

Also, there have been reports of men posing as drivers who pick up and assault unsuspecting women, DeFazio said. His committee is looking at requiring front license plates for cars that carry passengers in an effort to prevent that.

Still, he applauded Uber’s report, saying the company had done more than any of its competitors “by just reporting,” DeFazio said. “There’s more to be done, for sure.”