“I was surprised at how easily I got into the Uber,” 12-year-old Benita Diamond typed as she rode in the backseat of a Toyota Camry headed to downtown Orlando in the early morning Jan. 10.
“Minors aren’t allowed to ride in Uber by themselves,” she wrote on her mother’s phone, which she had used to secretly download the ride-share app and hail a car. “But, let’s be honest they do it all the time.”
The 4-foot-11 girl got out of the Uber that morning, climbed to the top of a nine-story parking garage and jumped. Earlier this month, Benita’s parents announced that they were demanding change in the way Uber enforces its policy prohibiting drivers from picking up unaccompanied minors.
Since then, the Orlando Sentinel has heard from about 20 people from across the country who said they are ride-share drivers, in emails, phone calls and comments. Some were eager to share their experiences as drivers; others were reluctant to be identified, worried about a negative response from their ride-share employers.
They all agreed with Benita’s observation about underage riders: It happens all the time.
Ronald Gross, an Orlando-based driver, said he routinely gets afternoon requests for pickups at high schools; a driver from Portland described being kicked off the platform for denying a ride to a minor; and Josue Perez of Orlando said he picks up riders only at Orlando International Airport to avoid situations like these.
An Uber spokeswoman declined to comment on the record and ignored interview requests, as well as several emailed questions about specific policies and practices.
Driver or ‘bouncer’?
Uber’s terms of service are clear: “A rider must be at least 18 years of age to have an Uber account and request rides. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older on any ride.”
But Bryant Greening, a lawyer specializing in ride-share litigation and co-founder of the Chicago-based firm LegalRideshare, said the underage policy is buried in the terms of service and is not clearly advertised to riders or drivers.
There is no age verification required during the sign-up process for riders, which prompts users to provide an email address, password, name and phone number. Clicking “create an account,” agrees to the company’s legal terms and services and privacy policies.
The age requirement is outlined 2,599 words into the Terms and Services. The only other requirement to request a ride is a form of payment.
The guidelines for drivers read: “As a driver-partner, you should decline the ride request if you believe the person requesting the ride is under 18. When picking up riders, if you feel they are underage, you may request they provide a driver’s license or ID card for confirmation. If a rider is underage, please do not start the trip or allow them to ride.”
Greening said the company passes onto drivers the responsibility of checking age.
“It’s not fair and it’s not realistic,” Greening said. “The driver is put in a position where they have to make judgement calls of someone’s age. The driver shouldn’t have to bear the burden of being the bouncer.”
Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy, a blog and podcast for ride-share drivers, and author of the book The Rideshare Guide, said many riders and drivers aren’t aware of the rule because it’s not one Uber wants to advertise. He said it also goes against a business model designed to encourage drivers to take as many rides as possible.
“This an issue that Uber and Lyft don’t want to solve. They leave it up to drivers, it’s like they want to get the best of both worlds,” Campbell said. “They make a lot of money off these rides, there’s a lot of kids who use it.”
According to Uber, drivers are asked to report situations in which they turn away an underage rider to the company’s 24/7 customer support team. In December, Uber sent an advisory to all drivers with guidance regarding underage riders.
“If your rider looks young, you may ask to see their ID to verify their age,” the guidance said. “If they are under 18, please decline the trip and report it to Uber.”
The announcement came weeks after a driver posted to Uberpeople.net, a popular forum for ride-share drivers, about an email drivers had received from Uber thanking them for their service – including a thank you “from the parent who is too busy to be there after soccer practice.”
“Couldn’t help but notice that they are endorsing drivers to pick up unaccompanied minors from soccer games,” the post’s author wrote.
In partnership with the National PTA, Uber in February launched a campaign called “Car Seat to College,” which it said was designed to provide information to families about how to use the app appropriately and have a safe experience.
Uber said it will remove an account if a driver, third party or the user gives the company reason to believe it is being used by an underage person. The account can only be reactivated if the account holder submits documentation proving that he or she is 18.
The company would not share the number of accounts deactivated for violating the underage policy.
“Drivers are put between a rock a hard place where Uber and Lyft are asking them to enforce their terms of service and that’s not the drivers job,” Greening said. “That’s on the company.”
Drivers cite ratings fears
Campbell, who has been driving for about five years and said he hears from thousands of drivers through his blog, said some drivers will take riders who look too young because they fear offending riders – and incurring negative ratings – by asking for proof of age.
“Frankly, it’s kind of awkward to ask for an ID,” Campbell said.
Drivers generally need to maintain a 4.6-star rating to stay active on the app, he said. Dropping below that risks deactivation. He said ratings mean a lot to drivers and asking for ID or questioning age can put that at risk.
The only information drivers receive about a passenger when they accept a ride is a name, pick-up location, and a profile picture, if the user uploaded one. Campbell said drivers have already spent time and gas to get to the pick-up location before they know if the rider might be underage.
Drivers have to ask themselves if canceling the ride is worth it.
At Orlando International Airport ’s ride-share driver parking lot on a recent weekday, a group of drivers gathered around a table playing dominoes, while others sat in open trunks or reclined in the front seats of their cars, scrolling on their phones – all waiting, sometimes for hours, to pick up a ride from the airport.
Perez, who sat in a folding chair under a tree in the lot, said he had been driving for Uber for about three and half years. He said most of the people who drive at the airport don’t have to deal with underage riders, but he understands the issue.
“A lot of people take the kids,” said Perez, 44. “Why? You’ve got to make money.”
A few nearby drivers nodded in agreement.
Perez cited Uber Pro, a program designed to boost drivers with high ratings and low cancellation rates, which he said gives drivers more information about the direction and distance of a request. Eligible drivers must keep a star rating at 4.85 or above, a cancellation rate of 4% or below and an acceptance rate of 85% or higher, according to Uber.
The company’s website says cancellations because of safety concerns won’t affect a driver’s cancellation rate. But Perez said drivers are still wary of risking penalties.
“We’re like those puppets on strings,” Perez said. “It’s like they control you, even though we’re private contractors.”
Gross, 68, said he always follows the policy but knows other drivers don’t. He said drivers shouldn’t be worried about ratings because picking up minors is against the policy and a question of safety.
“There’s no way I’m taking a rider under 18,” Gross said. “It’s wrong. Period.”
‘Point of no return’
Mark NeJame, the attorney representing Benita’s family, said her parents have not heard from Uber since they filed a demand letter to the company earlier this month and they are preparing a lawsuit.
Uber said it is investigating the incident, which the family did not report to the company before the letter.
Shortly after the family held a press conference this month, the Uber rider account Benita created was removed from the service, NeJame said.
Benita’s father, Ronald Diamond, said the family’s main goal is to make sure Uber enforces the policies it has in place to prevent children from using the service, so what happened to Benita won’t happen again. He said they’ve heard from drivers and families from across the country that have experienced similar situations.
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“I can deal with people calling me a bad parent,” Diamond said. “But I can’t live with this happening to someone else.”
When Benita was picked up at an empty lot in Lake Nona that January morning, her driver didn’t question her age and didn’t talk to her on the ride there, according records from the Orlando Police Department’s investigation of her death obtained by the Sentinel.
The driver, who only spoke Spanish, told investigators he thought she was 18 or 19 when he picked her up. According to the investigation, when the detective explained what happened to Benita the driver immediately started crying, explaining he had a 12-year-old daughter.
He became so upset he couldn’t speak.
As she rode in the back of his car Jan. 10, Benita typed a stream of thoughts into her mother’s phone.
“I’m at the point of no return,” Benita wrote. “I mean, I can’t just take an Uber all the way to downtown and turn back haha. Plus I’m late for school.”