Imagine pulling up to a stoplight or corner, and waiting for your turn to go. Maybe some people are milling around on the sidewalk and you’re waiting to see if they cross — maybe you need the light to change. And then, suddenly, a complete stranger has hopped into the back of your car and is shouting an address at you. How would you react? It’s not quite a car-jacking, but it might feel like it, and apparently it’s a growing problem in urban areas, thanks to ridesharing services like Uber, where customers are failing to check that a car is being driven by an Uber associate before hopping in.
Reports are rolling in from urban areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where drivers are getting irritated with having people randomly jump into their backseats, and customers are uber embarrassed about confusing their ride with some random stranger. Understandably, neither side is pleased with this arrangement. Customers just want to get wherever they need to go, while drivers would prefer not to be greeted with a surprise passenger in the backseat — especially women and minorities, who may be concerned about a safety issue on top of the bizarre experience of being confused with a private driver.
Unlike Lyft, which helpfully installs giant pink moustaches on partner cars to make them easier to find, Uber relies on unmarked cars, as do many other ridesharing services like it. When users of the service hail a car, they’re actually given make and model information, but many don’t look closely, especially if they’re distracted or intoxicated. When a car that looks right rolls up, many neglect the basic etiquette of walking up to the passenger-side window to confirm that the driver is, in fact, offering a ride, rather than just hitting the street on her own time.
Ridesharing services like Uber have mushroomed in recent years, creating a variety of concerns, especially among taxi drivers, who are concerned about the obvious threat to their livelihood. They complain that livery licenses are expensive, as are other restrictions on cab drivers, and ridesharing services effectively skirt these limitations to make hailing a car cheaper for customers — at the cost of more tightly-regulated cabs. In its ongoing regulatory fight, the firm has picked up some big lobbyists and pushed for support from a variety of corners.
This creates yet another concern about the company, and raises more questions about the safety of ridesharing services. Licensed cabs are typically clearly marked, making it easy to identify them, and individuals who hail cabs don’t have to wonder about whether a vehicle is the right one to get into. Even private hire cars typically have some indicative markings. Many cars belonging to ridesharing services, though, have no markings as companies don’t require them — although some civilian drivers have joked that maybe it’s time to start displaying “NOT an Uber” on dashboards to avoid situations like these.
Resolving the issue could be as simple as requiring that all participants in rideshare services clearly mark their vehicles so customers can identify them. But this recent spate of incidents brings up some larger issues about the safety of ridesharing services, and underscores the fact that concerns about them may be legitimate.
As cabs and workers depending on a traditional and more closely regulated model protest that ridesharing is depriving them of work and opportunities, the risks to ordinary drivers posed by thoughtless or distracted Uber customers are yet another strike against such services.
Photo credit: Scott Schiller.