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Make the ride-share ride safer

By The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune • Updated Dec 12, 2019 at 8:35 AM

Uber racks up more than 3.1 million ride-share rides every day. That's more than a billion rides each year. Certainly a big number, but so is this: 3,045. That's the number of sexual assaults that occurred in Uber vehicles in 2018, according to a first-of-its-kind report released Dec. 5 by the ride-share giant. For 2017, the number was 2,936.

Uber deserves credit for putting out the report it didn't have to issue. In an ad published Friday, Uber said it released its findings "not to find out what's going right, but what's going wrong." Finding solutions won't be easy. Of the 5,981 reports of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018, 515 involved rape or attempted rape. The most common type of sexual assault was nonconsensual touching — 1,560 incidents in 2018.

What's the best prism through which to view these numbers? Uber's right when it says the vast majority of trips, 99.9%, occur without incident. It's also right to say that just one assault on a passenger or a driver — Uber says a share of assaults involve drivers as victims — is one too many.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said his company is "a platform that connects people. And we have to keep making the kinds of investments to make sure those connections are constructive and safe." In the same interview, he added, "I think that Uber is at the size now where we are a reflection of society. And sexual assault, sexual misconduct is a societal problem."

But in this context — a business built on putting total strangers in close contact — it's an Uber problem. The Uber business model has at its core the idea of bringing together nonemployee drivers and random passengers through software. It's a manifestation of the gig economy. Airbnb, DoorDash, Instacart and even Facebook all thrive on the level of faith that the client or user has in the interaction. In Uber's case, that faith comes from the ride-share titan's ubiquity. More than a billion rides every year, and rarely does something horrible happen.

Uber and other ride-share apps try to reinforce that faith with assurances that they've fine-tuned measures to safeguard both passengers and drivers. Background checks on drivers have been tightened. Uber has introduced "Ridecheck" technology that flags whenever an Uber car has made an unexpected stop or has crashed, allowing a passenger to report what has happened to Uber or police. And contacting 911 about an Uber ride emergency is now possible through the app.

But 3,045 sexual assault incidents on Uber trips in 2018 alone suggests Uber has a lot of work to do, starting with constantly reminding drivers and riders that they're together only to travel, then part peaceably. Uber's safety report marks a good start — knowing the scale of a problem helps, as does being transparent about it. Lyft, Uber's chief rival in the ride-share race, says it will release its own report, though it hasn't said when. Lyft executives surely don't want their customers wondering if the company is stalling.

Ride-share has been a godsend to countless cities. It's the product of Americans' love affair with smartphones and desire to get from A to B conveniently and economically. But passengers — and drivers — deserve to rely on more than faith alone if they're to feel safe inside a car with a stranger. Until Uber, Lyft and other ride-share apps realize that, the trust that users have in the experience will remain vulnerable to assault.

(c)2019 Chicago Tribune

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