What to make of the alarming data on assaults, murders and other unsafe incidents reported by Uber Technologies Inc. on Thursday?
More than 3,000 sexual assault allegations were made in 2018 by Uber drivers and passengers in the U.S., the company said in a first-of-its-kind safety report. We can’t know from the data if Uber is statistically safer than other forms of transportation, or safer than being a human — particularly a female human — in the United States in 2019. Taxis, public-transit agencies, professional-car services and other transportation providers don’t make comparable national reports of crime as Uber has done.
The reported incidents are a fraction of the more than 1 billion rides Uber transacts in the U.S. each year. There is, though, one sure thing we can say about Uber, Lyft and related services that make them different than other forms of transportation: They sold us on the power of trust, and any erosion in that trust makes the companies vulnerable.
When services such as Uber and Airbnb were getting off the ground earlier this decade, people were understandably apprehensive about taking a ride with strangers, or staying in the home of a random person. Our parents literally cautioned us against this our whole lives, and it seemed incredibly stupid to defy a lifetime of warnings.
Slowly, though, these services wore down many people’s natural reluctance to trust strangers in these circumstances. That was partly because Uber, Airbnb and similar companies were too convenient and useful for many people to shun. But also, and importantly, our stranger-danger fears wore down because the companies successfully convinced us to trust that any danger of that type was remote.
The idea is that the collective power of millions of riders and drivers rating and reviewing each other would keep us safe. Uber and its peers around the world also touted their ability to screen drivers and passengers, and track rides to protect people from possible harm. There were questions from the beginning about how well Uber and other companies that put regular folks in the role of professional driver were screening people who used its service. But the companies’ ability to convince many people to tamp down their stranger-danger anxiety was a secret to success for Uber, Airbnb and the like.
That’s why anecdotes — and now data — of horrible crimes on Uber passengers and drivers matter, no matter whether they are statistically large or small. Those old feelings of anxiety recur.
The sad fact is that assault is a common crime we don’t like to think or talk about, because it makes us feel vulnerable. Every institution in America can do much more to protect vulnerable people. None of that absolves Uber from responsibility to do more.
There is compelling reporting indicating that Uber sometimes protects itself from liability at the expense of drivers and riders who are preyed upon. Uber in its early years of aggressive expansion did truly unconscionable things in response to allegations of a passenger raped in India.
Now, Uber deserves credit for doing the work to catalog and disclose incidents of abuse in its network, but we can’t be confident how many terrible abuses could have been avoided if Uber did more to prioritize safety. How much of the problem is Uber, and how much is the world? Because companies such as Uber sold us on trust, they get no passes when it comes to ensuring the safety of riders and drivers.
The collective power of trust is one of those internet-era truisms that is coming under question now. It turns out those five-star product reviews can be bought and gamed. That person on Facebook who says she’s a civil rights activist may be a Russian propagandist. It turns out that even genius technology companies are fallible, perhaps willfully so, about letting dangerous people slip through the cracks.
These risks are all present in the real world, of course, but for a long time we were convinced the power of the internet made trust more solid. Now companies, and the users of their products and services, are reckoning with the limits of trust.