Are Rideshare Companies Doing Enough to Protect Passengers From Sexual Assault?

uber-rideshare-passenger-sexual-assaultRideshare companies like Lyft and Uber have opened up new transportation options for millions. But the services have also opened up opportunities for drivers to commit sexual misconduct, up to and including rape. Multiple women who were sexually assaulted have sued Uber and Lyft for failure to adequately background-check their drivers. These lawsuits often also accuse the companies of failing to suspend drivers who were credibly accused of assault.

Widespread Rideshare Sexual Assault Allegations

Although the Washington Post says both Uber and Lyft have committed to eventually publishing statistics on sexual assault, neither has made any such statistics available as of fall of 2019.

As a result, information on the subject currently must come from public records. One set of statistics, from a taxi industry lobbying group called Who’s Driving You? uses news reports from around the world, stretching back to 2013, to find 395 alleged sexual assaults. That website counts sexual assaults separately from assaults and kidnappings, even though some of those have a sexual component, so the true number may be even higher.

In April of 2018, CNN reported its own statistics, using court records and police reports from across the United States between 2014 and 2018. The network found sexual assault accusations against 103 Uber drivers and 18 Lyft drivers, 35 of whom had been convicted. The accusations against them ranged from false imprisonment to unwanted touching to rape. CNN says there may be many more assaults, based on the number of police reports it reviewed, but it only counted those it could verify.

In one case reported by CNN, a woman called an Uber after drinking heavily and passed out in the back seat. She awoke while Uber driver John David Sanchez was raping her, but was able to getaway. After police arrested Sanchez, they discovered videos on his computer showing that he’d raped at least nine other women and children over the prior five years. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, NBC San Diego reported in 2017.

And in 2016, a leak from a former customer service worker at Uber, published by BuzzFeed News, showed that there were thousands of complaints about sexual assault. Uber’s corporate communication team told BuzzFeed News that it had received five rape claims and fewer than 170 sexual assault claims between December of 2012 and August of 2015. Screenshots from the leaker, however, showed 5,827 results when Uber’s customer support system was searched for “rape”; a search for “sexual assault” brought up 6,160 results.

Sexual Assault Lawsuits Against Rideshare Companies

Some women have taken matters into their own hands by suing Uber and Lyft. According to CNET, at least 34 women had sued Lyft for failure to address sexual assault or harassment as of October of 2019. Allison Turkos sued Lyft in September, alleging that instead of taking her home, her Lyft driver held her at gunpoint, then drove her out of New York City to an isolated park in New Jersey, where he and two other men gang-raped her. The month before, 14 women sued Lyft, arguing that it “stonewalls” police investigations and doesn’t respond to complaints.

Among those plaintiffs is a blind woman who took a Lyft to the grocery store. The driver offered her a free ride home, then forced his way inside in order to rape her.

Why Do Rideshare Companies Hire So Many Bad Drivers?

Many of the victims filing these lawsuits believe the sexual assault problem at Lyft and Uber stems from the companies’ lax background checks. As CNET reported in October of 2019, Lyft and Uber use background checks from a startup called Checkr, which is cheaper and quicker than an FBI background check. However, it doesn’t include fingerprinting or face-to-face interviews, and plaintiffs say that’s inadequate.

There’s evidence for that claim. ABC News said in September of 2019 that after the Portland, Oregon Bureau of Transportation started doing random checks in 2015, it revoked the permits of 168 Uber or Lyft drivers to do rideshare work. Two of those drivers had felony convictions—one for sexual assault. CNET also reported in 2017 that the Colorado Public Utilities Commission found 57 Uber drivers in the state with criminal or traffic offenses, including 12 with felony convictions.

Sexual assault lawsuits against Lyft and Uber often note that the companies’ business model depends on quickly getting drivers on the road, where they can start making money. That’s especially true since there’s high turnover among drivers, the claims say. As a result, they have a strong financial incentive to make sure background checks are quick rather than thorough.

What Are Rideshare Companies Doing About Sexual Assault?

Both Uber and Lyft say they take sexual assault seriously. Uber has a program focused on women’s safety called Driving Change, through which the promised report of sexual assault statistics will come. In response to the late-2019 lawsuits, Lyft announced new safety features in the app, mandatory training for drivers, and a plan to re-educate or remove people who violate Lyft’s safety standards. Both companies have partnered with anti-sexual-assault nonprofit RAINN.

Both rideshare companies have also addressed sexual assault by ending their mandatory arbitration policies, which forbade victims from pursuing their claims in a court of law. Instead, the terms of service riders agreed to when they signed up for the services required them to use a form of private judging called arbitration, in which the dispute is heard by a lawyer acting as a judge.

Taking the case out of the courts helps keep the dispute out of the public eye, which was further bolstered by mandatory confidentiality agreements the companies required of passengers. Those provisions were heavily criticized by victims and their advocates (as well as Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut), who said it denied women a fair trial, kept sexual predators behind the wheel and allowed the rideshare companies to sweep serious misconduct under the rug. Uber’s blog post changing the policy says victims can choose how to handle their claims and that confidentiality will no longer be required. Lyft followed within hours, Vox reported in May 2018.

What Do Rideshare Sexual Assault Victims Think?

Despite these measures, victims have repeatedly accused both companies of ignoring or minimizing their complaints. One common but serious criticism is that the companies don’t remove drivers from the platform after credible accusations of serious misconduct. Turkos, the woman who was kidnapped and gang-raped by a Lyft driver, wrote in September that the driver was still working for Lyft for some time after she reported the rape.

Likewise, the Washington Post reported in September of 2019 that Uber’s “Special Investigations Unit” keeps drivers working even if they’ve been repeatedly accused of misconduct, and is forbidden from reporting crimes to the police. Former investigator Lilli Flores told the newspaper that her job was to protect Uber from liability, not to protect passengers or the public from bad drivers. An October 2019 USA Today article says that when Uber does reach out to sexual assault victims, it uses a third-party claims company that seems aggressive in its attempts to limit Uber’s liability.

According to CNET, Lyft has a similar policy against interacting with the police. Attorneys for women who are suing Lyft say the company doesn’t automatically report sexual assault claims to the police and typically resists talking to police agencies until it’s forced to, by a subpoena or court order. Those lawyers also say Lyft has been antagonistic in its interactions with victims.

How Can Passengers Stay Safe?

Neither Lyft nor Uber permits passengers to request a female driver, and as BBC News notes, only a quarter to a third of drivers are female. Female passengers in certain cities can turn to alternative rideshare apps that only employ women and only permit women as passengers. Rideguru, a website for comparing rideshare services, lists two women-only services in the United States as of late 2019: Carol Drives, which is only in the Miami area, and Safr, which offers rides in Boston and Orlando.

For passengers in other cities, one place to start is with the safety features built into the major rideshare apps. Uber and Lyft both suggest that passengers verify that they’re getting into the right cars by checking the car’s color, make, model, and license plate, and the driver’s photo and name, against what’s shown in the app.

Once passengers are inside the car, Uber advises them to sit in the back seat when possible. Indeed, a rideshare driver told the Huffington Post in April of 2019 that passengers should “reassess the situation” if the driver insists that they sit in front. Drivers also suggest that passengers reject drivers who have another person along or don’t seem sober. And they said that if something seems off, passengers shouldn’t be afraid to get out, either by claiming there’s an emergency or adding a stop to the ride.

If that’s not possible, the apps for both Uber and Lyft have buttons for calling 911 quickly, as well as buttons allowing passengers to quickly share their location and their driver’s information with a friend. Those are relatively recent additions to the apps, as public attention has increasingly turned to passenger safety. Rideshare sexual assault lawsuits often argue that the companies should take advantage of their ability to constantly monitor rides through GPS or cameras, but so far, neither rideshare company has expressed interest