Like many college students in the Valley, Ellen Brancart and Lupe Valle rely on Uber — a smartphone app that allows users to catch rides from local drivers — to get around the Five College area after the buses have stopped running at night. On average, the Smith College students say, they use it about once a month, especially if they go out partying.
“When I’m too stoned to function or when I’m drunk, that’s like my go to,” says Valle.
Incidents across the country involving sexual assaults by Uber drivers have led to some public concern and prompted calls for greater government scrutiny of what was a largely unregulated industry.
“In the 10 or 12 Ubers I’ve taken, there’s only been one woman,” Brancart says. “They’re generally middle-aged men.”
Still, both Brancart and Valle say they’ve heard the horror stories — Brancart even says she knows someone in Oregon that was kidnapped by an Uber driver — but they’re not particularly concerned about their personal safety.
“If that’s the vibe I get then I just choose to sit in the back seat,” says Brancart. “But generally I would sit in the front seat.”
The popularity of the ridesharing services have spiked dramatically in recent years. Between 2014 and 2015, Uber went from operating in 60 cities across 21 countries to over 260 cities and 50 countries. According to the latest stats from Uber, the company boasts over 80 percent of the market share as of June 2016 with 50 million riders and more than 2 billion rides. The company says it has over 17,000 riders and over 1,000 drivers in the Valley. Despite recent growth in overall usership, Lyft, a similar rideshare service, is currently unavailable in Western Mass.
Last February, Boston police arrested an Uber driver on charges of indecent assault and battery after he allegedly “indecently touched her several times.” In September, an 18-year-old Holyoke man was arrested after he allegedly assaulted a UMass student while impersonating an Uber driver, according to an official statement on the UMass Amherst Police Department’s website. Samuel Texidor reportedly lured the student into his vehicle by telling her that he worked for the company and offered her a free ride, police said.
A string of such incidents have prompted calls for more stringent background checks on a segment of the emerging “sharing economy,” which puts private citizens in the driver’s seat. But do we need it? Some Advocate staff thought “yes!,” but the people we spoke with who regularly use the service said “maybe?” The protections built into the app have many people already feeling safe.
“I think that Uber would do a better job of doing a background check than the state of Massachusetts,” Valle says.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill last August that lays out a regulatory framework for so-called “transportation network companies” like Uber. And on Nov. 28, Baker’s administration announced that it had reached separate agreements with transportation network companies — Uber and Lyft — which require that drivers pass a state background check, which includes review of a person’s driving and criminal records, in addition to the third-party driving and criminal record check Uber says it already puts its drivers through. The law is not the first such state law in the country, but Baker’s administration is touting it as the “the most comprehensive state background checks for TNC drivers in the country.” Representatives from Baker’s office declined to be interviewed for this story.
The new law also calls for drivers to post company decals in their windows identifying them as rideshare drivers and mandates companies keep tabs on whether drivers and vehicles are properly registered and licensed to drive. It also fills in several insurance loopholes that created a gray area for drivers at certain points in their ride. The law took effect Nov. 3, as Chapter 159A½ of the Massachusetts General Law.
The Uber app pairs riders with company-approved drivers operating in the area. When a rider submits a request for a ride, a driver then chooses whether or not to accept it. The driver sees only the name and location of the rider. Once a driver has accepted the request for a ride, the rider receives the name of the driver, a profile picture, and the make and model and license plate number of the vehicle, as well as that driver’s location on a map and their approximate arrival time. Once in the vehicle, riders can choose to share their location and estimated arrival time with friends if they choose. Both drivers and riders give one another a star rating at the end of the trip. All monetary transactions are handled within the app. The per-ride rate is set by Uber and varies by geography, driver availability, time of day, and demand.
Incidents involving rideshare driver-passenger assaults have grabbed headlines, but the frequency with which they occur is unclear. Police departments aren’t tracking the data.
Lieutenant Jim Albert of the Holyoke Police Department says that, while the department doesn’t specifically track incidents related to ridesharing, he doesn’t see the Uber name popping up in police reports. He says he recalls “a couple of incidents” related to drivers, but that they were years ago, and changes to the Uber app have done much to improve rider safety.
“I can’t tell you the last time we had trouble with an Uber driver. Maybe it’s not getting reported, but I’m not seeing it,” Albert says. “At the end of the day I think Uber recognized some flaws in their system and they enhanced it.”
Uber is quick to agree.
“Uber is one of the worst places to commit a crime because it’s all on the map,” says Uber’s Susan Hendrick. “While we screen all of our drivers, we also get feedback in real time.”
The Advocate checked in with four police departments — Greenfield, Northampton, Amherst, and Holyoke. Officers at each station said that they do not specifically track rideshare reports. Anecdotally, the officers said they could not recall any major complaints.
There seems to be a general consensus among riders, too, that such services are safe, though most riders we spoke with did not know the details of the Uber vetting process.
Sri Wahyuni is a senior architecture major at Smith College. She says she takes an Uber every couple weeks to travel between campuses and that she doesn’t feel concerned about her personal safety.
“I think we’re in a relatively safe environment and I haven’t had a bad experience,” Wahyuni says.
She even credits Uber for giving her friend a ride away from a dangerous situation.
“Last year, my friend was almost in a sexual assault incident in Amherst, but because there was Uber she got to escape it,” she says. “Someone was harassing her and she was super drunk and couldn’t take the bus.”
Uber officials say with so many riders every years, there are bound to be some unpleasant incidents. Meanwhile, they say, the business is making the roads safer.
“Statistically, there’s a huge number of people that use Uber, so occasionally there are situations where a rider hasn’t been satisfied or the driver, which is why we have this two-way feedback loop,” says Susan Hendrick, an Uber representative who estimates the rideshare program facilitates 5 to 6 million trips in the U.S. every day. “So, if we see someone acting in ways that do not fulfill our expectations, then we can get them off the platform.”
The service may also contribute to a decline in drunk driving.
A study out earlier this year suggests that alcohol related fatal crashes and other alcohol related offenses decrease as a result of the presence of TNCs.
A 2015 joint report by Uber and Mothers Against Drunk Driving — modelled after an amateur but compelling study by a Philadelphia blogger — found strong evidence that Uber decreased incidences of drunk driving in nearly every city in which it operated, while the study says that the pattern is not found in communities without a ridesharing service.
“When you looked at the data, there was a very strong correlation between when Uber entered a market and the decrease in drunk driving incidents, whether that was a fatality number or an arrest,” says Amy George, a senior vice president of marketing at Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “In California, where they’ve been in market the longest, over about a year-and-a-half, we’ve seen about 1,800 lives saved.”
At the same time, an independent study by Temple University found 3.6 to 5.6 percent fewer drunk driving deaths in cities with ridesharing services compared to those without. The findings suggest that a complete implementation of UberX — Uber’s most popular, low-cost option — would save over 500 lives per year at a savings of $1.3 billion to the American taxpayer when the cost of when the annual cost of medical care, prosecution, and incarceration is calculated.
In other parts of the country, Uber has faced lawsuits amid concerns over the quality of its third-party background checks. California prosecutors argued in 2014 that Uber’s background checks were less extensive than those required of cab drivers because they didn’t include fingerprint checks that would reference drivers against federal databases. In Massachusetts, transportation network companies do not fingerprint their drivers, and such a measure is not required under the new law. Though, Boston cab drivers must undergo this precaution.
While Uber and Lyft agreed to fingerprinting in Austin and Houston, Texas, both have spent millions fighting a fingerprinting standard on the grounds that name-based checks are just as accurate, and that fingerprinting causes unnecessary delays in the hiring process. Uber also argued that fingerprinting could cause a driver who was acquitted of committing a crime to be flagged unfairly.
In Massachusetts, Uber has used the company Checkr to conduct its third-party checks. It’s been reported that the service checks applicants against a series of national and statewide databases, including the National Sex Offender Registry and National Criminal Search. Under the new agreements, drivers will undergo CORI, SORI, and RMV (driving records) checks administered through the state’s Department of Public Utilities, but will not be fingerprinted. The companies must have completed third-party background checks on all drivers and submitted driver information to the DPU’s new Division of Transportation Network Companies by Jan. 6, 2017.
Maddy Dye works in downtown Northampton and is a third-year student at Hampshire College. She says that, because she doesn’t have a vehicle, she relies on Uber to get around.
“I use public transportation unless I can’t,” Dye says. “It’s very helpful for somebody who can’t get around any other way and has to be somewhere.”
She’s been using the service for a couple years and she’s met interesting people and had a few funny experiences, but she’s never once been made to feel uncomfortable.
Still, Lieutenant Jim Albert says that riders should exercise caution.
“I think the normal rules of safety apply,” Albert says. “In the end, if you’re going to use public transportation, just be aware of your surroundings. If it’s possible to travel with someone else, I would do it, and certainly know where you’re leaving from and where you’re going and tell somebody that that’s what you’re doing.”
Peter Vancini can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.