Uber’s Crime Report Is ‘Highly Alarming,’ Says a Criminologist

More than 3,000 people reported sexual assaults related to Uber rides in the US last year, the ride-hail company said Thursday in a long-awaited report on violence and safety—an average of eight per day. Drivers reported sexual assaults to Uber at roughly the same rate that riders did. The company also said that nine people were murdered and 58 were killed last year in crashes related to the transportation app.

The number of sexual assaults reported to Uber in 2018 rose by 4 percent from a year earlier, the company said. But because there were more Uber trips—1.3 billion last year—the incidence of sexual assault (including nonconsensual touching, kissing, and penetration) fell 16 percent. Uber said it is committed to rolling out features to reduce those numbers.

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“Each of those incidents represents an individual who has undergone a horrific trauma,” Tony West, Uber’s top lawyer, told NBC Nightly News. “But I’m not surprised by those numbers. And I’m not surprised because sexual violence is just much more pervasive in society than I think most people realize.”

The data is difficult to put in context. The other nationwide ride-hailing service, Lyft, has not released similar numbers, though a spokesperson said the company is committed to doing so. Data on assaults and crashes related to taxicabs is only occasionally collected by localities, but there’s no nationwide data on taxi incidents.

Still, one criminologist said that, unlike West, he was surprised by the numbers contained in the Uber safety report, and not in a good way. “It’s highly alarming,” says John Roman, a senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, a social science research organization.

Data on violence, and particularly sexual violence, is fraught, as victims historically have been loath to involve law enforcement. Uber noted in its report that police were involved in just 37 percent of the rape incidents reported through its app; that likely makes Uber’s reported numbers look artificially high when compared with national crime statistics. Plus, the FBI’s data on sexual assault has been bedeviled by issues of classification. In fact, Uber worked with advocacy groups to create a “taxonomy” of sexual assault—five categories ranging from nonconsensual kissing of a nonsexual body part to nonconsensual penetration—for the report. Still, “stranger rape” is relatively rare: Just 27,000 incidents occurred last year, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, fewer than 20 percent of the total rape incidents reported to the FBI.

Uber, meanwhile, reported 235 rapes last year, about one in every 5 million trips. To Roman, that seems very high, especially given that most of these incidents are between strangers who interact fleetingly during an Uber ride. That goes for “stranger” homicides too—just about 450 arguments between strangers led to murders in the US last year. According to Uber data, 19 of those were related to the company’s rides.

“We all think being victimized by a stranger is just the price of just living in America,” says Roman. “But I think people don’t understand how rare stranger homicides and stranger rapes are. To see all these [Uber-related] rapes and murders—that’s the thing that makes me really alarmed here.”

True, Uber rides are more common at “high crime times”—that is, on weekend nights—and may be more likely to involve an intoxicated rider, who may be more vulnerable to assault. Research has suggested that Uber has saved lives by helping riders avoid drunk driving. Plus, it’s likely that more women drive for Uber than work as taxi drivers, which might heighten the likelihood of driver assault. Uber cautions against comparing the rate of incidents on rides with national data because its riders tend to be more urban and more affluent than other Americans.

But Roman surmises that Uber’s model contributes to crimes. For one, unlike taxi drivers, Uber drivers use their own vehicles, which typically don’t include your classic plexiglass divider. A study in the Baltimore area in the mid-1990s suggests that assaults on taxi drivers dropped precipitously after the city required taxi owners to put partitions into all their vehicles. The intimate quarters of an Uber car ride might invite inappropriate behavior—and a partition might prevent it.

The violence may also be related to Uber’s controversial employment model, which classifies drivers as independent contractors rather than full-time employees. “There’s a big literature in criminology that finds people are less likely to commit crimes if they fear losing their job because of it,” says Roman. But if drivers only view their job as an occasional, part-time gig—not a job—Roman says they’re less likely to approach driving with professionalism, or with fear of termination. The same might go too for riders, who see drivers as amateurs and less worthy of respect.

“I would expect to see a drop in crime if drivers became employees,” says Roman. In California, a natural experiment may be on the verge of playing out: A law that goes into effect next year would transform ride-hail drivers into employees, though both Uber and Lyft have said that they don’t believe the legislation will affect them.

Assault survivor advocacy groups praised Uber’s release of the safety report, hailing the company’s efforts as a high-water mark in transparency. “We’d love to see organizations in every industry, including educational institutions, make a similar effort to track and analyze sexual misconduct within their communities,” Erinn Robinson, the press secretary for Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said in a statement. RAINN has partnered with Uber on its safety efforts.

In recent months, Uber has introduced features aimed at improving driver and rider safety. Soon, riders in some cities will be able to text 911 through the app and automatically transmit details about their locations to emergency responders. An opt-in PIN feature will prompt riders to give drivers the correct four-digit code before the driver can begin the ride, in an effort to make sure that riders are in the right Uber and in a vehicle that is actually an Uber.

Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with the LA-based group Rideshare Drivers United, says she believes the report is a sign Uber is moving in the right direction on safety. “This is a victory for the hundreds of victims, drivers and passengers who have spoken up and said ‘No, this is the responsibility of these companies,’” she says.

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