When he said, “You’re a good woman,” as he finally unlocked the minicab door, I wondered what would have happened if he’d decided I was a bad woman. He let me out right next to some deserted railway arches and rusty oil drums, in the wrong part of town, where he wasn’t meant to have taken me. I ran.
All this came after 20 minutes of him ignoring my directions, driving to a dodgy part of South London, refusing to stop, refusing to unlock the doors, refusing to let me go. Long minutes where he told me to "shut up" as I negotiated and pleaded with him, and shouted to try to get the attention of the people we drove past.
That was years ago, and the car was a beaten-up unlicensed minicab, and I made the bad decision to take it. Since that experience, and having read about others' experiences and followed the Suzy Lamplugh Trust campaign on minicab safety, I avoid unregulated and unsafe taxis.
And with Berlin now banning Uber –- a service that connects you with a private driver via an app on your phone -– following concerns about passenger safety, I’m curious about whether it’s time we gave ridesharing apps the finger.
I first heard about ridesharing apps when some colleagues ended up taking an Uber Hummer to a meeting, having struggled to flag down a regular cab, while working in Washington DC. The story really stood out as it sounded far more glamorous than the routine, A-to-B taxi journeys I’d been on. Since Uber began filling the streets of London in 2012, I’ve only ever had 5-star experiences. Launched in San Francisco in June 2010, Uber is now part of everyday life in over 100 cities around the world.
While many cities are embracing Uber, others are rejecting the service. In early August, Berlin voted to ban Uber on the grounds that it didn’t do enough to protect passengers from unlicensed drivers. The senate statement on the Berlin ruling claimed that Uber failed to provide adequate insurance for its drivers or their passengers in accidents. Uber is also banned in Hamburg, and a Belgium court has ruled the service illegal there.
In South Korea in July, Seoul’s city council stated that they were planning to ban Uber following concerns about background checks on drivers and vehicle upkeep, as well as the impact on the current taxi industry. These bans follow the protests across Europe and the US against the app by traditional taxi drivers, which highlighted a range of concerns from passenger safety to regulation and from the impact on the existing taxi trade to the tax status of the company.
Search for Uber online and, within a few clicks, you find a whole load of stories that left me seriously worried about the service. An investigation by Pando, a US tech site, found that a driver accused of assaulting a passenger in San Francisco had slipped through Uber’s background checks despite having spent time in prison for a felony and having two misdemeanour charges. The Uber driver involved in the death of a six-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve was also found to have passed Uber’s background checks despite having been arrested and convicted of reckless driving in Florida 10 years ago. The Chicago Tribune found that an Illinois Uber driver had slipped through the background check system with a felony record for burglary and misdemeanours for criminal damage and breaking into a car. Meanwhile, Valleywag reported on the ways one driver claims people can get around the background checks and have multiple people ‘share’ an account or pass an account on from one driver to another.
All this left me worrying about passenger safety, and I started asking around. Most of my friends said they love the service: the speed, the convenience, the glam cars. Some said they like the quality assurance system that lets you rate drivers, ensuring that those who receive a low number of stars are no longer used by the company. Others said that the system leaves them feeling emotionally pressured to give a good rating, because no one wants to cause someone to lose their job.
None of them said they had safety concerns. All of them sounded like they think Uber operates like any other taxi firm, rather than as a technology firm, and they’d expect the same standards for safety and protection from the company. This expectation -– to be protected with a safe ride home -– is something that Uber should ensure it lives up to if it wants to survive. This also left me wondering how we can ensure people are more aware of the fact that rideshare apps operate in a totally different way to old-school taxis and minicabs.
The Licensed Private Hire Car Association, which represents taxi and private hire vehicle operators that take pre-bookings, highlights regulations that require private hire operators to deal with passengers through a licensed entity and accept journey bookings at a licensed operating centre, stating that “those rules are designed to protect public safety [...].”
Uber doesn’t do either of those things -– it doesn’t operate like a regular minicab firm. The Licensed Private Hire Car Association has also raised safety concerns and claims that it “has evidence of Drivers engaged by ‘Uber’, using vehicles for transporting the public without appropriate insurance or the consent of the vehicle owner.” Steve, a London black cab driver, told me that he encourages his 19-year old daughter to only take a black cab, or a car from a mini-cab firm they know well, to get home from Soho at night. He said: “When it comes to Uber, I’m not in favour. There aren’t the same checks, they could be anyone.”
When I reached out to Uber to ask them about their background checks through their media enquiry form, they didn’t respond. When I tweeted them, they said, “Every driver in London has a PCO license from TfL (requiring a CRB). We check this as well as insurance, license & MOT docs.” Translated from acronym soup, this means that their drivers have to have a Public Carriage Office license from Transport for London, the organization responsible for the day-to-day running of London’s transport network, which involves a Criminal Records Bureau check for past convictions.
This, to me, sounded pretty comprehensive. But since then, a number of strangers have contacted me to say that they believe this system doesn’t go far enough to check for criminal activity in other countries in Europe or beyond. Uber, meanwhile, pointed me to their blog post where they said:
Uber is fully committed to working with TfL on finding constructive ways to bring London’s mobility to unprecedented levels of safety, developing, establishing, and maintaining industry-leading policies and processes. We were pleased to show TfL how scrupulous Uber is in vetting drivers and making sure all paperwork adheres to TfL’s strict standards. We are particularly proud of the fact that Uber passed TfL’s ‘largest ever’ compliance investigation.
I’m still left with questions: How can you be sure your Uber driver has passed a background check if so many drivers with convictions have slipped through the checking system in the US?
Is it really possible for drivers to share profiles and, if so, how can you be sure that your Uber driver is who they say they are?
If it’s easy for people to move from one European country to another, why don’t our background checks go further to check for criminal activity overseas?
Why has the UK been so quick to embrace Uber, when it works outside of the private hire operators rules designed to protect public safety, and when other cities are rejecting the service?
If rideshare apps operate in a totally different way to old-school taxis, how can we ensure people are aware of this and the steps we all need to take to keep safe?
I asked Uber what steps they were taking, if any, to reassure people about passenger safety following the Berlin ruling. They didn’t get back to me.
As more cities reject Uber, I think more and more people will start questioning whether ridesharing apps are right for their city. If Uber wants to continue to grow at a superfast rate, they are going to have to bring all of us along with them, not just for a ride, but for the long-term. They need to look and sound like they care -– not just about passing the "largest ever compliance operation" -- but also about passenger safety. That means living up to the expectation that they will do all they can to protect passengers and provide us with a safe ride home.
What do you think: Should we wise up and embrace Uber and other rideshare apps, or is it time we gave them the finger?