Hailing an Uber has become a routine part of people’s lives; millions of people do it each day, and the technology that makes ride hailing possible is a wonder, changing the way we commute, go out on the town and, yes, work. Central to Uber’s rise has been its ability to shatter a taboo taught to all children: Don’t get in a car with strangers.
But the technology behind Uber cannot overcome the fact that every Uber ride hinges on getting into a vehicle with someone you know next to nothing about.
Although Uber has gone to great lengths to project an image of security, saying that safety is “at the heart of everything we do,” the company has consistently placed a higher priority on protecting its own image. And though it serves as an intermediary pairing riders with drivers, it claims virtually no direct responsibility for what happens on a trip, including accidents, assaults and injuries.
When bad things do happen on a ride, drivers and passengers can speak with a team of Uber customer service agents, internally called investigators, to describe what happened and seek help. Typically with little to no background in trauma response, these workers address problems ranging from being overcharged, up to accidents or assaults. They are given scripts to read to often upset passengers and drivers, and strict company policies prohibit the agents from reporting the incidents to the police, even when perpetrators acknowledge their actions.
The agents can’t even suggest that a victim call the police themselves. Why? Because police reports can puncture Uber’s carefully crafted safety image — and open the company up to more lawsuits and responsibility.
Depositions detailing Uber’s safety procedures and made public last month in an ongoing federal lawsuit in San Francisco paint a picture of a company shirking its touted commitment to safety. (Uber has denied wrongdoing and is contesting the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in September.)
The driver in the case was previously investigated. The agent, Briana Lambert, looked into prior allegations that the same driver had harassed a passenger by driving her off-route, pressing her for her phone number and getting into the back seat with her to attempt to kiss her. “I am sorry to hear about what you described. I do thank you for your courage,” said Ms. Lambert, using language from her script.
The rider, according to court documents, said: “I am just wondering what is the appropriate, you know, action for this. I am not even sure.”
“Legally, I can’t advise you on what to do,” Ms. Lambert said. Investigator testimony related to the ongoing case wasn’t available for review.
The largest ride-hailing firm in the United States, Uber has called safety its highest priority. It was first to release a report detailing serious incidents on rides in the U.S. — although one that pointed to 6,000 alleged incidents of sexual assault over two years. It has bulked up its teams devoted to safety matters, consulted with advocacy organizations and has started to allow riders to record audio of their trips within the app to use as evidence later. Earlier this year for the first time Uber and Lyft started sharing data with one another about dangerous drivers.
But Uber has resisted other measures like fingerprinting, installing cameras in drivers’ vehicles and more extensive background checks that could improve safety, but that would also slow the process of adding new drivers, essential to keeping enough available rides on the road. Some drivers have said recently that Uber’s hands-off approach has left them vulnerable to attack by passengers. And as demand has picked up, Uber is struggling to maintain enough drivers, forcing it to offer cash bonuses and other perks to get them back on the road.
Two years ago, I wrote for The Washington Post about Uber’s safety culture, relying on interviews with staff agents who described their unease about the company’s lax protocols. Uber broadly denied their characterizations. But the recently unsealed depositions from current Uber employees show just how deep the problems run.
They reveal the carefully worded scripts that agents are given to use when aggrieved riders and drivers call in, and they show that even in the most egregious cases — including confessions of rape, armed assaults and kidnappings — Uber won’t contact the authorities unless a person is in immediate and present danger. Ultimately, Uber is effectively helpless to maintain safety when a ride is underway. And when it knows about heinous acts committed on the rides it profits from, it often does no more than kick perpetrators off the app.
“We would never presume to know the right choice for someone who has experienced trauma,” Emilie Boman, Uber’s director of global safety policy, said in a statement. “Our policies have been carefully developed with guidance from experts and survivors themselves — all of whom have consistently told us that assuming someone wants the police involved, or pressuring them to do so, risks retraumatizing them. We firmly believe it should be up to the survivor, and if they do make that choice, we have an entire team standing by to support them.”
Testimony from agents like Ms. Lambert provide a rare on-the-record glimpse into the workings of the safety culture at Uber, which is frequently sued but has a track record of settling almost every case well before employees are called upon to testify.
In one deposition, an Uber agent, Billie Garrett, was asked if she had been trained to report to the police when she had received an admission of a sexual assault.
“No,” replied Ms. Garrett.
Was she trained to tell accusers that Uber had confirmed their allegations?
“No,” she said.
That was corroborated in testimony by Ms. Lambert and another deposed Uber agent, Wade Stormer. “If Uber investigates a suspected rape committed by a driver and the driver is interviewed by Uber and admits to facts indicating that he did, in fact, commit a rape, would Uber report that person to the police?” another lawyer asked.
“No,” said Mr. Stormer. (The Uber employees in the depositions did not respond to requests for further comment).
Uber policy is to leave it entirely up to victims to report potential crimes committed during rides. But, the testimony shows, it hardly makes that clear. “We could not specifically tell them to go to the police,” said Ms. Lambert. “If that was something that they wanted to do, we could provide them with the resources.”
As a result, Uber may be aware of thousands of potentially dangerous drivers and riders in our communities but it does not do all it can to ensure they are brought to justice. Only a third of rape allegations on Uber rides from 2017 to 2018 involved law enforcement, Uber’s data show.
In her August deposition, Ms. Lambert, who now works in a different department for Uber, said that over the course of 19 months as an investigator she fielded around 1,500 complaints, roughly 600 of which were allegations of sexual assault. It’s not clear how many of those were verified. Uber in 2019 disclosed nearly 6,000 cases of sexual assault between 2017 and 2018 in the United States. A spokesman said some allegations are frivolous or attempts to get a refund and so they don’t appear in its safety report. Lyft, which has similar safety procedures but also hosts fewer rides, reported roughly 1,800 sexual assaults in 2019.
In one instance discussed in the depositions, Ms. Lambert, when she was working as a safety investigator, petitioned her managers to allow her to report to the police the details of an assault on a driver by armed passengers. “I wanted to reach out on behalf of this driver after hearing their statement of what happened,” said Ms. Lambert. “It was emotional for me to hear at the time just given the facts and all of the phone calls that I had with all of the parties involved.”
She was told by supervisors that was not allowed. And of roughly 20 rape allegations Ms. Lambert investigated, she said she didn’t route a single one to the police.
Mr. Stormer seemed to agree that Uber could be clearer with potential victims about the company’s role in reporting a crime. A lawyer asked him, “What harm can you imagine happening if the investigator had been trained to say simply, ‘Ma’am, just so you know, Uber is not going to report this to the police’?” To which Mr. Stormer replied, “No harm,”
Would it be appropriate to tell a victim plainly that Uber is not going to report an incident to police, he was then asked. “That would be a good idea,” he said. In cases in which a rider reached out to report a sexual assault, Uber states in follow-up emails, “We believe the decision to report to law enforcement is entirely up to you,” according to a template sent by a spokesman.
Victims’ advocates told me there’s a better way. “If Uber cares about public safety, as it claims, there is a public interest in getting sexual assailants off the streets,” said Jane Manning, director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project and a former sex crimes prosecutor. She said Uber ought to make it clear to alleged victims upfront that it will not go to bat for them on its own. As Mr. Stormer said, Uber can change its scripts by offering to approach the police on victims’ behalf, directing them to victims’ advocates or help-lines or suggesting they seek legal counsel.
Instead, “our job is to keep the tone of our conversations with customers and drivers so that Uber is not held liable,” a former investigator told me in 2019.
I worry that in Uber’s desperation to meet rising customer demand it will also further relax its standards to draw in more drivers. And I worry that Uber remains stubbornly willing to turn a blind eye to horrific acts in the name of being victim-centric and keeping its report numbers low.
The vast majority of Uber rides end without incident and most drivers and riders are well-meaning. The services have helped reduce drunken driving deaths, expanded transportation access to far-reaching communities and, for better or worse, helped to redefine the definition of work.
Uber may say that safety is a top priority, but as its own testimony shows, when customers or drivers are injured, attacked or worse, victims really are on their own. Riders can do more to protect themselves like checking license plates, car models and driver photos before getting in a vehicle and by going directly to the police, rather than Uber, to report incidents.
There are no easy solutions here, but it’s troubling to think that Uber may know more about terrible acts committed in our communities than do local authorities. Small changes can help, like scripts for its agents with advice and annual safety report disclosures. Or Uber could treat its drivers like employees, assuming more responsibility for their actions, but that would be devastating to its current business model.
Until proven, the thousands of reports agents field each year are of course just allegations. And the last thing Uber should be expected to do is play judge and jury, but by choosing to turn a blind eye it is, in effect, doing just that. If riders knew that from the get-go, perhaps they’d be more leery about riding around with strangers.