On New Year's Eve 2013, Huan Hua Kuang and her two children, Sofia, 6, and Anthony, 5, were struck by a car while walking home from a family dinner party. Ms. Kuang and her son sustained several bone fractures, but Sofia suffered an even more unfortunate fate. She was killed in the collision with an off-duty Uber driver. Sofia’s seventh birthday would have been the following week.
Uber initially declined responsibility and claimed the driver was off-duty and therefore not working for Uber at the time of the accident. Since then, there have been several other reported problems involving Uber drivers, including sexual assaults, kidnappings and imposters as well as former felons, which raises the questions: Who is driving you, and who is responsible for their actions?
Over the past semester at AU, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about Uber among students. I’ve heard students complain about the timeliness, but few of the students that I have talked to realized the number of cases filed against Uber for various accusations of illegal activity. Uber is immensely popular with millennials and representative of the new sharing economy, but it is important that people understand the possible dangers of allowing Uber to operate unregulated. Whether the company continues to run unregulated or not, its popularity suggests that Uber will continue to thrive in the District and around the country.
Over the past six years, Uber has gained traction as one of the world’s fastest-growing companies, reaching a $41 billion valuation. As a transportation network company (TNC), Uber is designed to connect passengers and drivers using an online application. With the touch of a screen, a person summons a ride via an online portal that tells consumers an estimate of time and price for the requested ride. Since the company’s launch in 2009, Uber has expanded to over 300 cities spanning sixty countries. The introduction of Uber has transformed the TNC industry by providing its customers with personal transportation and added convenience. There are very few drawbacks for consumers, who are able to hail rides quickly and at lower costs (excluding surge periods) than traditional taxicabs.
Uber strategically uses social media platforms to reach its audience. Uber’s media stunts, from delivering ice cream and kittens to celebrity launch campaigns, also contribute to its increased influence. But it is the psychological effect Uber has on consumers that perhaps constitutes its most aggressive tactic. By taking advantage of society’s growing impatience and “I want it now” mentality, it provides consumers with fast alternatives that cater to on-demand requests. People who once preferred to take cabs, buses, or the Metro are now opting to take the easier and cheaper, but perhaps also riskier choice.
Spurred by the digital age, data privacy and digital security have become issues of great concern. Using a so-called “God-view” tool, Uber staff members are allowed to track the company’s riders and drivers. This shows that Uber can effectively monitor whomever they choose. Moreover, what Uber does with a passenger's personal information is shocking. Uber shares customer data with company personnel, from Uber executives to Uber drivers, which has opened Uber up to increased criticism. This should serve as a warning about potential abuses. Consumers need to be aware of the information they provide and for what purposes this data will be used.
Let’s now turn to Uber’s influence on college campuses. The most common argument made by students in support of Uber is that it is a safe and easy way to get home. This is especially true for women, who may find themselves in a situation where they are alone or vulnerable. An Uber can arrive in a matter of minutes. The danger posed by not knowing where you are and not having to wait outside in the dark is gone, right?
I would argue that Uber purposefully advertises to inebriated college students, making them more susceptible to sexual assault, as well as verbal and physical aggressions. Uber wants to be your designated driver. Whether or not this is true, the rate at which women report being sexually assaulted or passengers report verbal and physical aggressions by Uber drivers is alarming and must be addressed.
The service even claims that it fights to reduce drunk driving. If a drunk college student chooses to take an Uber home, the company has successfully reduced the number of drunk drivers on the road. But consider this: if that person is not behind the wheel, then who is?
Uber employed an astounding 25 drivers with criminal records in 2015, ranging from murder to child abuse, according to a complaint filed by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. An on-duty Uber driver that assaulted a passenger had been convicted of felony and battery charges, despite passing Uber’s background check. The question on everyone’s minds should be: how do people who committed serious crimes pass Uber’s security screening and what can be done to make the ride-sharing service safer?
While no criminal background check is perfect, Uber and like-companies should not be exempt from providing its customers with adequate safety measures. The easiest solution would be for Uber to incorporate biometric identifiers, namely fingerprinting. But Uber doesn't want the added work and cost of requiring drivers to undergo heightened background checks. Thus, an Uber customer's life rests in the hands of an unchecked stranger.
Unlike Uber, taxi cabs are regularly inspected to guarantee they are up to code and taxi drivers go through more scrutinized screenings before being allowed to drive. Simply put, taxis are regulated to ensure the safety of all parties involved and to provide accountability if something goes wrong. Uber’s repeated attempts to avoid responsibility for the actions of its drivers should be of concern to Uber supporters.
The bottom line is that consumers need to make their own risk-reward calculations: they should weigh convenience and affordability against safety. I can certainly appreciate technical innovation and the advantages of the sharing economy. Uber is appealing for those looking for convenient and cheaper transportation alternatives, and for good reason. But next time you decide to take an Uber, please make an informed decision. And stay safe.
Camila Velloso is a sophomore in the School of International Service