Since officially launching in San Francisco in 2011, rideshare service Uber has become one of the most dominant modes of transport around the globe.
However, concerns over driver and passenger safety have become a larger issue for the company, with physical and sexual assault reports from riders and passengers on the rise.
With this in mind, the question must be asked, just how safe is ride-sharing?
Uber said in a report from 2019 that there had been 3,045 reported sexual assaults and nine murders related to Uber in the past year in America.
However, the company was unwilling to divulge statistics from Australia when asked by website Mamamia.
Regardless, the report is not without merit, most notably because it points out that drivers report assault at roughly the same rate as riders.
Arriving in Australia in 2013, Uber offered a cheaper fare on average in comparison to taxis by using ‘sub-contractors’ as drivers.
Potential drivers are required to provide their own car for the job, drastically reducing overhead costs for the company.
This business model of using ‘sub-contractors’ for drivers would become popular, with rival companies DiDi and OLA launching in Australia in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
The use of ‘sub-contractors’ instead of employees is where problems have arisen, with drivers essentially being hired to drive for the service without the usual vetting process used in other lines of work.
Holly, who requested to have her name changed for this story, was enjoying the nightlife in Sydney.
At the end of the night, Holly called an Uber to return to her hotel.
The events that followed are before the courts at the time of writing.
“I was tired, and didn’t have my car with me, so naturally I called an Uber to return back to the hotel, ” Holly explained.
“I was alone and thought it would be the safest option.”
During the trip, Holly alleges she was indecently assaulted by the driver.
“I was only a bit tipsy, but the driver saw that as good enough reason to try and touch me,” Holly said.
“Even after I clearly told him to stop, he became more forceful. I opened the car door at a red light and just ran.”
Holly immediately reported the incident to police, who charged the driver with indecent assault.
“I was a mess, I felt like I had done something wrong,” Holly said. “It changed the way I look at everything”.
Often using rideshare services when going to enjoy a drink with friends, Holly says that trip in Sydney changed her outlook on rideshare forever.
“I thought the service was there to protect young women, to get them home safe,” she said.
“At the end of the day, you don’t know who is driving these cars and what their motives are.”
Holly says she struggles to trust any mode of transport now: “I try to plan my nights to avoid any rideshare or taxi services.”
Holly’s story is just one example of the safety concerns for the user of rideshare, however, it is the safety of the drivers that is perhaps most often overlooked.
The flexible work hours were what initially attracted Newcastle’s Jerry Butler to become a rideshare driver, and he worked for DiDi and Uber for just under two years.
Butler, 27, would end up leaving rideshare driving because of safety concerns and what he says were poor working conditions.
“I would make between $200 and $300 for four hours of work after-tax,” Butler said.
But an incident in 2019 left him wondering whether the job was worth the risk.
Butler accepted a fare from a woman in March of 2019. When he arrived, she was showing obvious signs of intoxication: “She was very drunk, she thought I was trying to rape her,” Butler said.
“I just said, I want to take you home, I won’t drop you off in the middle of nowhere.”
Butler says he was slapped by the woman whilst driving. “I just had to put up with the physical and verbal abuse and take her home; she didn’t like the way the GPS was directing me.”
Butler completed the ride and reported the woman to Uber. He says he was told by the company to block the woman from future rides.
Physical threats became commonplace for Butler, particularly when completing fares around pubs and clubs of Newcastle and the Central Coast.
“My personal view is that rideshare companies such as Uber, DiDi, and OLA don’t do enough in regard to driver safety, particularly in regard to driver fatigue and abuse from rideshare users,” Butler said.
Butler highlighted another safety issue, that of unverified drivers. “Some rideshare applications would require you to sign in via facial scan, but I know drivers who would sign in, then just let someone else do the driving,” he said.
In November 2019, Uber announced new protocols aimed at better keeping their riders and drivers safe.
One was a new facial scanning sign-in feature, aimed at eliminating the unverified driver issue that Butler highlighted. Other features have since been rolled out, including an emergency assist button and a ‘share your trip details’ option that lets the rider share their location with whomever they desire.
Butler stopped working for the rideshare services in late 2019, saying “my safety wasn’t worth the money in the end”.