A once-beloved transportation option frequented by bar-hoppers and partygoers, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have become the faces of thousands of sexual assault cases.
Initially deemed a safe way for women to get around as an alternative to drunk driving or walking home alone at night, rideshare companies have been forced to address the harsh reality that drivers and passengers are both at risk when using these services.
According to AbuseLawsuit.com, an organization that provides resources and support for survivors of sexual abuse and assault, several characteristics of rideshare services put both drivers and riders in danger, including a lack of sufficient safety features in comparison to taxis.
Since rideshare drivers operate using their own vehicles, there often lacks plexiglass or plastic windows separating the front and back seats, something that can act as a protective barrier between strangers.
Rideshare services also often operate during nights and weekends, which tend to be times of high crime, and features like Uber Pool that allow shared rides increase the risk of passenger-on-passenger assault.
Uber released a safety report in December of 2019 that revealed nearly 6,000 sexual assault cases between 2017 and 2018. Of the reported cases, 54% involved accused drivers and 45% involved accused passengers.
Rina Poh, a fourth-year management major at Long Beach State, said she had an experience with an Uber driver making sexual comments toward her, which she said made her “uncomfortable.”
Women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence than men, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The organization found that Uber passengers made up 92% of victims of “non-consensual sexual penetration” between 2017 and 2018, and “female drivers are at risk of unwanted touching, sexual violence or other acts of sexual misconduct.”
Isabelle Wang, a first-year math education major at Long Beach State, said she feels unsafe using rideshare services as getting into a stranger’s car is “frightening” and tries to remain alert during her trips.
During one of Wang’s “relatively uncomfortable” Uber trips, the driver had explicit text messages visible on his phone from the backseat, where she was seated.
“It has made me much more cautious when riding,” Wang said. “[I] always hover over the ‘help’ button in case anything goes wrong.”
Among hundreds of lawsuits against Uber, one from a woman in Oregon sued the company in January 2020 for over $1 million. According to the lawsuit, the driver allegedly made sexual remarks, touched her legs and sexually assaulted the woman after locking the back doors and forcing her to sit in the passenger seat.
Though the company has faced lawsuits due to sexual assault allegations since 2017, “little is known about these early lawsuits,” AbuseLawsuit.com said, because Uber “used mandatory arbitration clauses to settle claims of abuse” before 2018.
In May 2018, Uber eliminated its policy of mandatory arbitration, which previously had customers consent to resolving any disputes outside of a court. This forced silence of victims, according to AbuseLawsuit.com, kept the public unaware of these cases and may have contributed to female passengers feeling a false sense of security when using rideshare services.
Uber has since implemented safety features such as mandatory background checks for drivers, annual screenings for drivers’ criminal history, verification of driver identification and, most recently, coronavirus-related regulations.
First-year pre-production major Lillian Li said she “doesn’t like the idea” of using rideshare apps.
“I’m a woman, so being alone in a car alone with a stranger just seems straight up dangerous. It’s just not a chance I really want to take,” Li said. “It’s just not something I’m comfortable with.”
The organization maintains that while companies like Uber have made steps in the right direction, women must understand the risks of continuing to use rideshare services.
It is recommended that women avoid riding alone whenever possible, especially when intoxicated, and share their location and trip information with friends and family as well as sit in the back seat.
Wang said she makes sure to ride with someone she knows whenever possible to make herself feel more safe.
“I think it’s always good to stay cautious and aware for your your own safety,” Wang said.