San Francisco: Uber said Thursday that it had reports of 3,045 sexual assaults during its rides in the United States in 2018, with nine people murdered and 58 killed in crashes, in its first study detailing unsafe incidents on the ride-hailing platform.
The number of incidents represented a fraction — just 0.0002% — of Uber’s 1.3 billion rides in the United States last year, the company said.
There are few comparable figures to judge Uber’s safety record against. The New York Police Department, which keeps a register of sex crimes and rapes that occur on transit systems, counted 533 in 2018.
But even one of Uber’s top executives said the company’s findings were difficult to stomach.
“The numbers are jarring and hard to digest,” Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, said in an interview. “What it says is that Uber is a reflection of the society it serves.”
Safety has been a long-running Achilles’ heel for ride-hailing companies, which depend on a large volume of people using their service. Uber, the world’s biggest, chose to be transparent about cataloging sexual assaults, murders and crash fatalities as it has faced growing pressure over these issues.
Many ride-hailing companies initially thrived by flouting regulations and allowing almost anyone with a car to become a driver without the screening and licenses required in the taxi industry. Reports of sexual assault and murders have since become a regular occurrence as ride-hailing has become a mainstay of urban transportation. Many of the companies face a growing number of lawsuits over safety incidents.
In 2017, a woman who was raped by her Uber driver in India sued the company and its executives for obtaining and mishandling her medical records; she later settled for an undisclosed sum. This week, 19 women joined a lawsuit against Lyft, saying they had been sexually assaulted during rides arranged by the company.
Uber and others have introduced more safety features and procedures in recent years. Uber has rolled out automated technology to regularly check drivers’ driving records and criminal history. Since 2018, it said, it has deactivated 40,000 drivers in the United States after they failed the checks made by the automated technology.
Lyft is “committed to releasing our own safety transparency report and working within the industry to share information about drivers who don’t pass our initial or continuous background checks or are deactivated from our platform,” a company spokeswoman, Alexandra LaManna, said Thursday.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said ride-hailing companies needed to do more on safety, such as conduct fingerprint-based background checks of drivers.
“All of those steps are starters because these ride-hailing companies have been abjectly failing in their duty to protect against predators or criminals,” he said.
Uber and Lyft are struggling financially. This year, both companies staged prominent initial public stock offerings that went on to disappoint Wall Street. The companies are also losing enormous sums of money because of the continuous expense of attracting drivers and passengers. Last month, Uber posted a quarterly loss of $1.2 billion.
The report did not give a comprehensive picture of safety across Uber’s operations. It provided no information on the 65 countries outside the United States where Uber offers its services.
In Brazil, India and elsewhere, murders and assaults stemming from ride-hailing services have been widely reported. Didi Chuxing suspended some of its services in China and fired executives last year after a female passenger was raped and killed.
Still, Uber’s study establishes a benchmark for safety in an industry where such data has been scarce.
The report covered the safety of both riders and drivers. Murder victims were drivers, passengers and third parties. In cases of rape, Uber said, 92% of the reported victims were riders. But drivers reported other types of sexual assaults at roughly the same rate as riders, Uber said.
The company was not specific about who the perpetrators were.
Uber said it had cataloged 2,936 sexual assaults in 2017 and 3,045 in 2018, ranging from unwanted kissing of what it called a “nonsexual body part” to attempted rape and rape. The largest category was nonconsensual touching of a “sexual body part” like someone’s mouth or genitals.
The number of fatal crashes related to Uber trips was 49 in 2017 and 58 in 2018. The statistics included accidents that occurred outside Uber vehicles, such as when a passenger was struck after exiting a ride, and crashes in which Uber drivers were not at fault.
Uber disclosed 10 murders in 2017 and nine in 2018. Seven victims were drivers, eight were passengers, and four were third parties, like bystanders outside the Uber vehicles, the company said.
Throughout its study, Uber emphasized that 99.9% of its trips were safe and that it was taking an unusual step by releasing the data in the first place. Sexual violence experts agreed that publishing the numbers was an important step in combating abuse across the industry.
“That a company is willing to peel back the drapes and let us look into what is happening is, to me, the success,” said Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and a member of Uber’s safety advisory board.
Uber began studying the issue of sexual assault in late 2017 under its newly hired chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi. He recruited West, a former Justice Department official, to the company and asked him to review cases of sexual harassment and assault among Uber rides that year.
Over the next 21 months, Uber trained its staff to filter reports from riders and drivers globally into 21 categories, such as nonconsensual sexual penetration, leering and unwelcome comments about a person’s appearance. The company also worked with safety organizations such as the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Uber ultimately narrowed the scope of its report to five categories and concentrated on the United States.
Jeanne Christensen, a partner at the Wigdor law firm who has represented rape victims in lawsuits against Uber, said the publication of data would create incentives for Uber to improve its safety.
“The more that the public is aware, the more the company and everyone else has to respond,” she said. “It’s such a part of daily life that everyone is going to take it. We’re already at that point. So now they just have to make it as safe as possible.”
West said Uber had more work to do. The company has tripled the size of its safety team since 2017, to 300 employees, and plans to continue expanding it. Next year, it plans to set up a support hotline in partnership with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a nonprofit that works against sexual violence.
West said Uber would also share information with other ride-hailing companies about drivers it thinks have committed an assault, though he did not present a timeline for doing so.
“There is no law, regulation or lawsuit that is forcing Uber to make this data available,” he said. “We are doing this, frankly, because the public has a right to know.”
Kate Conger c.2019 The New York Times Company