Uber weighs next steps after report showed more than 3,000 sex assaults during U.S. rides in 2018

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

Uber’s report was hailed by victims’ rights organizations for taking a 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.

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In the safety report, Uber said 464 people were raped while using its U.S. services in 2017 and 2018. Almost all of them — 99.4 per cent — 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.

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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.

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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 with loved ones during a ride. The company outlined additional safety steps it will take in the report.

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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.

The report only covers Uber’s U.S. operations. The U.S. and Canada brought in 63 per cent of Uber’s revenue last quarter. Lyft said it would release its own safety report, but it has not indicated when.

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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 a national database, and when you run that fingerprint, you’ll know.”

Uber says the FBI has acknowledged its database is incomplete and does not always include a final disposition. The company’s process includes a motor vehicle screening, a criminal background check and ongoing notifications about any new offences.

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An added fingerprint check could add precious time to the driver-approval process at a time when both Uber and Lyft are fiercely competing for market share.

Dashboard cameras also could help by recording incidents and serving as a deterrent for bad behaviour, 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.

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

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A U.S. House committee is looking at legislation that could 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.

The committee has discussed requiring fingerprint background checks, camera monitoring and front license plates for ride-hailing cars in states that don’t have them. This would help prevent fake ride-hailing drivers from picking up passengers by making it easier for passengers to check plate numbers against the ones provided by Uber and Lyft, DeFazio said.

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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.

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There may be limits on what federal legislators can do. Ride-hailing companies could be regulated federally because they conduct interstate commerce, but that is new legal territory, he said.

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.”

The report raised alarm among some riders.

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“I think I’ve taken it a little bit for granted, the fact that the app already tracks who I am and where I’m at,” said Mary Yao, 28, an MBA student at U.C. Berkeley. “I think I’ll be more conscientious next time I climb into a car to not always be on my phone. So it has made me raise my awareness a little bit.”

Bryant Greening, an attorney and co-founder of LegalRideshare, a Chicago law firm that specializes in ride-sharing cases, noted that more than 40% per cent of the reported sexual assaults, which include incidents less serious than rape, were against drivers, who also are at risk.

“There’s no more dangerous place to be than in a moving car with a stranger,” Greening said. “You are really vulnerable without a clear path to escape. So this system, rideshare, needs to be made safe for everybody who is in that car.”

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