In 2010, Uber launched its ride-sharing app, revolutionizing the taxi service/ridesharing industry, and since, it has recognized tremendous growth. As of 2018, Uber has over 3 million drivers and 75 million riders worldwide, doubling the amount realized the year prior. However, this sensational growth might hit a bump in the road because of increasing concerns about safety. High-profile cases of assault and word-of-mouth anecdotes have many wondering how safe Uber’s ridesharing service really is.
Assessing Uber’s safety record involves comparing it with the safety of taxi rides, but stats about the frequency of safety breaches in both Uber rides and regular taxis, like Yellow Cab, are hard to obtain. For now, the best way to compare the safety of Uber with the safety afforded by regular cabs is to see what both offer and their respective features. You’ll find that, in some areas, Uber is safer than regular cabs, and in other areas, it’s not. (For more, see 4 Challenges Uber Will Face in the Next Years.)
Uber's website says “driver-partners” are screened through a multi-step process, which includes reviewing criminal and driving history. It is reported that applicants must submit their Social Security data, driver’s license, proof of insurance and car registration numbers, which are vetted by three private background-check firms.
Uber has claimed that it exceeds what is required of local taxi companies. However, because local governments have different ordinances, it is only in cities like Seattle and Boston (with very basic taxi regulations) that Uber’s background checks are likely to be more stringent. Some U.S. cities require taxi drivers to be finger-printed and drug tested, whereas the drug-testing requirements for Uber drivers are more ambiguous and no finger-printing is required. In such places, Uber falls short of the requirements that regular cab companies must meet.
These differences are more profound in other nations where Uber is located. For example, in certain parts of Australia, Uber driver-partners use their personal cars, and anyone over 21 who has a full driver’s license, has a relatively clean criminal record and driving history, and has third-party insurance can qualify to be an Uber driver. A registered taxi driver in New South Wales, on the other hand, must meet additional requirements, such as speaking sufficient English, undergoing a medical assessment, being of “good repute” and completing a training course for taxi drivers.
Because Uber drivers use private cars, they are also able to fly under the radar of the rules that apply to professional drivers, making Uber drivers less accountable. Taxi drivers undergo frequent monitoring, while the assessment of Uber drivers is said to be a one-off check. In addition, taxi drivers guilty of a misdemeanor suffer quick penalties and possible suspension, but a misdemeanor by an Uber driver, who is not registered under any federal or state body, may never be exposed. For example, in some places, taxi drivers cannot have alcohol or drugs in their bloodstream, while Uber drivers are allowed to have alcohol in their bloodstream if it's below the prescribed limits of the law. Police officers do not necessarily recognize Uber drivers as professional drivers, so they may slip past enforcement.
What They’re Driving
The question of safety also includes the condition of a cab driver's car. In some ways, Uber has an edge in safety since it requires its fleet to be relatively new (post-2005 models). On the other hand, that advantage weakens when you consider that Uber cars are not examined beyond the once-a-year checkup. Taxis elsewhere, however, usually undergo regular safety checks beyond yearly registration, including machinery checks by independent entities.
The Technology Behind the Ride
In some places, taxis are fitted with extra security devices, including security cameras. Uber cars, because they are privately owned, usually do not have these features. Also, some worry that the current version of the Uber app enables communication with Uber only via email. Non-Uber cabs, however, typically have communication devices like two-way radios that allow information (such as when an accident occurs) to be relayed in real-time. (For more, see Uber Versus Yellow Cabs in New York City.)
The Uber app, however, may be the very feature that makes Uber a safety standout. The app means passengers can input their information into the app and get specific information about the driver picking them up; so there's no such thing as a random pick-up. Riders also do not need to leave secure premises and stand outside in an unsafe neighborhood as with hailing a cab.
Also, Uber’s app makes cashless transactions possible, diminishing the likelihood of robberies. The profile information of riders, which is also transmitted via the app, ensures safety for drivers, too. In addition, there's a rating system for drivers and riders that helps filter out risky characters. An Uber driver is quoted saying, "Before riding with Uber, riders are required to create an account with their personal and payment information – and rides can only be requested through the app, so there’s a detailed record of every rider and every trip. As a female driver with Uber, I feel safe in the car.”
In fact, Uber is reportedly installing even more technological features in some areas. After a rape allegation in India, Uber implemented new safety measures, including a panic button on the app that connects riders to local authorities, as well as an upgraded function that allows passengers to alert others about their whereabouts in real-time. It also appointed a chief security officer to implement digital and physical security measures.
How Liable Is Uber?
The very nature of Uber's service causes safety concerns. The company's fine-print terms for its U.S. service states that it cannot be held responsible for loss or damage to a passenger's property or any personal injury suffered by that passenger. The passenger must agree to assume the risks that come along with entering the vehicle of a stranger to the extent permitted under law. That's because Uber claims it's just software that connects riders to cars; it's neither an owner nor an operator, so it's not liable for incidents involving Uber driver-partners. In most cities, taxi owners and operators, in addition to drivers, must answer for claims against them. That makes a huge difference in the speed and nature of the response to claims by victims of assault and other misconduct. (For more, see What's Uber Worth?)
The Bottom Line
Determining whether an Uber ride is safer than a taxi ride depends, to some extent, on the screening requirements, the specific profile of the driver and the condition of the car. However, less enforcement and monitoring, as well as lack of liability on the part of Uber, might result in a riskier ride. At the same time, using Uber (its hailing app) means you don’t have to engage in a random pickup, and you can probably get a prompt ride, even in an unsafe neighborhood. So is Uber safer for you? The answer depends on where and who you are.