Some time ago I picked up three young, professional women in East London for a short trip over to Shoreditch. (I’m deliberately being vague on locations in order to protect my privacy and that of the suspects). The woman who booked the ride sat up front and appeared to be sober – I normally won’t accept riders who are out of control drunk due to all the risks that entails. She told me over the course of the journey that she worked for a household name brand American media company serving the youth market with children’s and young adult programming including music videos. She was bringing two clients out for the evening and I quickly realised the two clients now in the back seat were worse for the wear. One proceeded to plant her feet on my headrest and the other demanded access to an auxiliary cable to stream their own music and when I said I didn’t have that service available she demanded a discount.
We got underway and things were fine until we reached a major junction in East London. Stopped at a red light on the inside lane of three lanes of traffic on a 6 lane road at one of London’s most dangerous junctions, one of the backseat passengers opened the door to vomit onto the street. She lay horizontal with her head out the open door as traffic began to move away at speed from the now green light.
After she gathered herself together, I figured it was time to terminate the ride. Why? Well besides the risk of the lady being decapitated or run over after falling out of the car there was a risk of her being sick in the car, which, asides from cleaning effort would end my night and result in unrecoverable lost earnings. And there are other risks – perhaps she had also taken drugs and could lose consciousness . I mean, who knows? It’s just not worth the risk.
So I performed a U turn and pulled over on the other side of the street by the pavement. As I was doing so, the lead rider up front asked me where the water bottles are. She explained that most Uber drivers provided free bottles of water and this would surely now come in handy for her friend to rinse her mouth out with after vomiting. Afterwards I did the maths – the fare to that point was c. £7.50. Three 750 ml bottles of Evian at Tesco would cost me £2.50, Uber commission would be £1.50. This would net me £3.50 in earnings for 30 minutes work but before fuel, insurance, wear and tear, licensing costs etc. – that works out well below the national minimum wage of £6.50 and the London living wage of £9.15 per hour after operating costs are deducted.
I terminated the ride and pointed them to a shop open along the street where they could buy water. I politely explained that I believed the sick friend was not fit for travel and perhaps they might take a few minutes to get a cup of coffee, drink water and take a walk. However, all three were reluctant to leave and did not do so before all three repeatedly called me a ‘dick’ and were generally abusive. After they left, I moved the car a short way up the street and immediately made my report on the trip through the App to Uber. I really wasn’t confident Uber would accept my version of events when the inevitable rider complaint arrived so I was determined to stay ahead of the complaint curve.
On the other side of the street I noticed another Uber driver pulling up to take the tree ladies onward. I felt it was only right to warn him – certainly Uber is not going to do anything to share information on risky passenger situations from the wealth of data analytics available at their finger tips, so we drivers need to look out for each other. The lead passenger arrived soon after me and discovered I had warned my cooleague about their behaviour and my experience. I left and crossed the 6 lanes of traffic again back to my car. She followed me and repeatedly called me a ‘********* C**t’ (enter the ethnicity of choice) and repeatedly shoved me backwards using her hands. She attempted to apologise for and explain her need to use the racist epithet: ‘..you’re a ********* C**t and I never say that’. It was cold comfort that my temerity to cancel the journey and warn a colleague had incited this otherwise educated, respectable woman to lash out physically and use racist language. It was an almost laughable case of blame the victim for the necessary victimization. You made me do it.
Eventually she went back to the driver at the other side of the street who was still waiting and considering his options. The two back seat ladies had fallen on the pavement and were crumpled in a heap. Eventually they staggered to their feet, crossed three lanes to the middle island and crumpled in a heap there. I took the opportunity to take one picture of them as proof to Uber that they were totally unfit for travel. At this point the trio turned on me and screeched out repeatedly that I was a pervert. The public on the street began to take notice and one or two did ask what was going to on check if things were OK. At around this point a rather large young man jumped out of his car and came at me with open fists. He pushed me back violently a few times and screamed out that I was a pervert and it wasn’t OK for me to take pictures of drunk girls. I tried to explain that he didn’t understand what was really going on but he was having none of it. Luckily his car was blocking a lane of traffic at this point so he soon returned to it and left the scene. At no point did the women correct him and they left him with the impression that I was the perpetrator and they the victim.
I returned to my car and was pursued by the three women. The front seat lady continued to push me and call me a pervert. I explained why I had taken the picture but it made no difference. I advised her to leave me and to go and look after her friends. She was having none of this either and tried to hold open my car door as I tried to retreat into the cabin. By this time the two friends had composed themselves enough to come and kick the body work of the car. Eventually, they left the scene in the direction of Shoreditch.
Uber and Police Response
At this point I thought it was important to call the Police. I did so not because I was physically confronted by the women or the man who left his car to get involved. It was not because of the racist abuse either. No, the straw that broke the camels back was being called a pervert. Us Uber drivers get an unfair battering in the press that we represent a threat to women riders as sex pests. There are bad apples in every trade and in London, the black taxi trade have had their fair share of bad eggs too though they take every opportunity to portray the private hire trade as offenders. I wasn’t confident that Uber would ever listen to my side of the story when the inevitable rider complaint arrived. While I could live with being thrown off the Uber platform I could never accept the shadow of any allegations of sexual misconduct.
The British Transport Police arrived and took the report promptly. They advised me to attend the nearby Met Police Station and make a full statement there which I did immediately. I would be remiss to not mention how wonderful our emergency services are. I can only say that one can never fully appreciate their professionalism and skill until the day you really need them. The Police were sympathetic and responsive. They felt the incident was serious and should be taken seriously.
After making the report the Police asked me to contact them as soon as possible the next day with the rider’s details – name, address, phone number, email address – from Uber (as drivers we are only ever given the rider’s first name and nothing else).
Eight hours later (Uber don’t operate any real time emergency response) I got a reply to my reports on the incident and I was somewhat relieved that they seemed to accept the seriousness of the incident and were supportive:
Frankly, i’m a little shocked by what you describe, I’m so very sorry to hear that you had such an unpleasant experience with a rider using our platform. I’m happy to hear it sounds like you handled this like a professional and emailing us to let us know about this is the right thing to do.
We obviously take the standard of driver experience extremely seriously, and take every effort to ensure that any rider using the platform adheres to the highest quality standards.
Clearly, in this case this sounds like a long way from what you or I would describe as a quality experience. Please let me assure you that we are currently taking steps to ensure that this experience would not happen again and I will be speaking and managing the process with this rider personally.
You have done the correct thing by informing the police. Should they contact us, we will do what we can to assist with the investigation.
I immediately wrote back and asked for the riders name and address, something I had already asked for in the In App report and was ignored by the staff responding to the initial report. There was no reply to do this during the day and so that afternoon I wrote again (a third time) and asked why there was a delay in providing the suspect details as I had been a victim of a fairly serious offence.
I got another reply from Uber support as follows:
…..sorry to hear about this however we cannot provide you that information for data privacy reasons.
We can provide them to the police subject to the relevant documentation under the Data Protection Act and they can contact us directly to request that. We’d be happy to help them investigate this.
I relayed this message to the Police and they expressed surprise noting that the rider had been my customer too and therefore I should be entitled to the information. I asked Uber again:
The police can email us directly on the email address firstname.lastname@example.org and those emails come straight to a specialised response team who will assist directly.
The Police did contact Uber and duly filled out the Data Protection forms, but after almost 6 weeks Uber have yet to give the Police the details requested so as to identify and contact the suspects. Uber are now are demanding that the Police get a court order for this information. The goals posts have been moved and a Data Protection request is no longer enough.
As to what action they have taken with the rider here is Uber’s reply when I asked them:
Except this isn’t true. When a rider reported an assault to Uber they committed to cooperating with Police and told the riders friend that they would immediately deactivate the driver.
Implications & Conclusions
I can only come to one conclusion regarding Uber’s response: Uber simply doesn’t care about driver safety and welfare. They have allowed 6 weeks to pass in their non response to Police and this seriously degrades the quality of the potential investigation by Police. Time passes, memory fades and witness statements become less reliable. It’s simply irresponsible. I have to ask if I had assaulted and racially abused a rider would Uber be as slow in providing my details to the Police? I think not. Why? Because consumers have a voice and power and drivers do not. Consumers can threaten regulatory consent and revenue flows. This is all that matters to Uber and its masters at Goldman Sachs and the Silicon Valley VC community. Ethics and civic responsibility matter not. What would it take for Uber to cooperate: would I have to be murdered, rendered unconscious on life support, hospitalized with serious injury. Where does Uber’s moral threshold lie?
The incident also raises interesting questions of who is actually responsible for safeguarding the rider and driver anyway. Uber’s rider Terms and Conditions say:
For the avoidance of doubt : Uber does not itself provide transportation services, and Uber itself is not a Transportation Provider. Uber acts as an intermediary between you and the Transportation Provider. You acknowledge and agree that provision to you of transportation services by the Transportation Provider is pursuant to the Transportation Contract and that Uber accepts your booking as agent for the Transportation Provider, but is not party to the contract.
Got that? Uber is not even a party to the contract yet refuses to disclose to me as the principal of the contract who I am contracting with even when I have been assaulted. This paragraph is repeated twice in the standard Terms and Conditions.
In the Driver’s contract with Uber there are similar get out clauses:
Partner acknowledges and agrees that Uber does not provide any transportation services, and that Uber is not a transportation or passenger carrier. Uber offers information and a tool to connect Customers seeking Driving Services to Drivers who can provide the Driving Service, and it does not and does not intend to provide transportation or act in any way as a transportation or passenger carrier. Uber has no responsibility or liability for any driving or transportation services provided by the Partner or the Drivers to third parties (including the Customers). The Partner and/or the Drivers will be solely responsible for any and all liability which results or is alleged to be as a result of the operation of the Vehicle(s) and/or the driving or transportation service, including, but not limited to personal injuries, death and property damage. Partner agrees to indemnify, defend and hold Uber harmless from and against any (potential) claims or (potential) damages incurred by any third party, including the Customer or the Driver, raised on account of the provision of the Driving Service. By providing the Driving Service to the Customer, the Partner accepts, agrees and acknowledges that a direct legal relationship is created and assumed solely between the Partner and the Customer. Uber shall not be responsible or liable for the actions, omissions and behaviour of the Customer in or in relation to the Partner, the Driver and the Vehicle.
And on the tricky issue of cooperating with Police Uber remains coy:
In case of a complaint, dispute or conflict between the Partner or the Driver on the one hand and the Customer on the other hand or in other appropriate instances where a legitimate reason for such disclosure exists, Uber may, but shall not be required to, – to the extent permitted by applicable laws and regulations – provide the Customer, Partner, the Driver and/or the relevant authorities the relevant data (including personal data) of the Partner, the Driver or the Customer.
For good measure Uber seeks to silence any drivers who might raise any complaints with the following clause:
…refrain from speaking negatively on Uber’s business and business concept in public
All of this handy lawyering work and the feet dragging in my case flies in the face of Uber’s newly minted Code of Conduct which says:
Uber maintains a zero-tolerance policy regarding all forms of discrimination, harassment or abuse.
It is unacceptable to refuse to provide or accept services based on a person’s race, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity, age or any other characteristic protected under applicable federal or state law. This type of behavior can result in permanent loss of access to the Uber platform.
No aggressive behavior
It is disrespectful to make derogatory remarks about a person or group. Furthermore, commenting on appearance, asking overly personal questions and making unwanted physical contact are all inappropriate. We encourage you be mindful of other users’ privacy and personal space. Violence of any kind will not be tolerated.
Calm and clear communication is the most effective way to defuse any disagreement that may arise between you and another Uber user. Uber expects that all riders and drivers will treat one another with respect and courtesy.
I’m genuinely sorry to put this sorry tale into the public domain. I have no desire to ruin the lives of the women involved in this case or to besmirch the reputation of Uber. In fact I had spoken to the Police about this and I would have been happy if they had been just able to give the suspects a stern talking to after Uber gave over the details. Alternatively, I would also have been happy if Uber had committed to some action but since they won’t tell me if they have and since they have not cooperated with the Police over 6 weeks then I assume they really have taken no action. Since the Police now have to get a court order they posed the question to me about whether I’d be willing to support a prosecution and make a full witness statement and appearance. They rightly feel that if they have to put in a great deal of extra leg work to just get suspect details from Uber then they need to justify the investigative effort with a successful prosecution. My reply – if it has to be something or nothing then it has to be something. If Uber had been cooperative the consequences for all involved could have been much reduced and much Police time would not be wasted. I also happen to believe its important that the public learns of the conditions drivers face every day on the Streets of London. The vast majority of Private Hire and Taxi drivers in London are good, honest people who deserve a modicum of respect from the travelling public and the protection of their business partners and employers when they have been attacked. By simply letting this matter lie contributes to an environment of permissiveness where riders can behave badly and Uber shelters them from accountability.
Come on Uber. Be better than this.