March 2019

Questions of public safety continue to dog private transportation companies

by Mike Beggs

Arizona police authorities were appalled and rattled by a January 30 incident where a pregnant Lyft driver was stabbed by a male passenger -- killing her and her unborn child.

Kristina Howato, 39, was murdered by a 20-year-old man wielding a kitchen knife. He faces two charges of first degree murder, and one count of armed robbery. In her third trimester, Howato had children ages 4 and 2.

Just a few days later, an Arizona man was arrested after (allegedly) slitting the throat of his Uber driver. The driver needed 20 staples to seal up the wounds, but was in recovery.

To this news, Gizmodo media group observed, “while ridesharing companies have come under fire since their inception over safety issues, these concerns have largely centred around the safety of passengers.”

“The safety of drivers always seems to be a secondary thought, but it shouldn’t really be when these kinds of incidents in Arizona show that driving for companies like Uber and Lyft can be a very dangerous job,” the story alleged.

Meanwhile, the January 7 conviction of Michigan-based Uber driver Jason Dalton, who killed six people in a petrifying February 20, 2016 shooting spree, was another tragic reminder of where PTC driver background checks fall woefully short. Dalton was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to the six counts of murder. This atrocity was made worse by the news that one of Dalton’s passenger’s that day claims he contacted Uber to warn of his “erratic driving”, and the company failed to respond to him or take Dalton off the app.

More recent headlines from across the globe highlight the security concerns for PTC passengers, and drivers.

On February 5, India Today reported, “New Delhi Couple Kills Uber Driver, Dumps Chopped Up Body In Drain.” The two were arrested for robbery and killing the driver.

On December 20, the Chicago Sun Times reported of an Uber driver who fled the country to avoid charges related to an altercation with a cab driver, who later died. A video revealed the Uber driver kicking the victim in the head, repeatedly.

Meanwhile on January 30, an Uber driver entered a plea of not guilty to the rape of an intoxicated female passenger, after being extradited to San Francisco from Canada. According to the San Francisco Chronicle the Tunisian national faces felony charges of rape by the use of drugs, and rape of an unconscious person.

On February 9, a CBS Boston headline reported of an, “Uber Driver Arrested, Charged With Sexually Assaulting Rider, after she refused his offer of money for sex.

From London, England came the mid-December report of an Uber driver who was found not guilty of a terror charge, after attacking police outside Buckingham Palace with a 42-inch sword in August of 2017. The driver testified he only wanted to be killed by police, and did not intend to commit a terrorist act.

From London, Ont., came a CBC report on January 17 citing allegations of “spanking, twerking, and kissing” between Uber drivers and passengers, prompting an investigation by the company.

This hubbub stems from two videos posted on the popular Bizbuzz site. Both were viewed about 300,000 times.

One showed an (alleged) male Uber driver and a female customer dancing and singing, before the driver reached into the back seat to spank the woman, who then shook her buttocks at him. In the other video, a female passenger was seen leaning over to kiss an (alleged) male Uber driver on the lips.

Uber officials told CBC, “We take any reports of this nature very seriously, and unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated on the Uber app”, and that such drivers and passengers could have their accounts deactivated.

“There is no sexual conduct (tolerated) between drivers and riders, no matter what,” the company told CBC.

The broad safety concerns surrounding PTC’s have been compounded by the many reported crimes around the world committed by “fake” PTC drivers, preying on female passengers at bar closing time.

On February 11, Business Today filed the story of an unregistered Uber driver who raped a 26-year-old woman in Greater Noida, India, while using someone else’s credentials.

And a day later, an NBC Bay Area headline blared, “Law Enforcement Struggles To Catch Fraudulent Uber and Lyft Drivers”, in San Francisco.

NBC reported that Uber is working with law enforcement to investigate a scheme, which would allow criminals and unlicensed drivers to circumvent the company’s background checks and pick up passengers.

In September, NBC Bay Area rented a Lyft account from an underground online chat group, where brokers advertise rideshare accounts that allow drivers to mask their true identities using stolen information. NBC now reports of a similar scheme involving Uber drivers.

In Toronto, the March 21, 2018 death of 28-year-old Nicholas Cameron has shone a spotlight on the apparent drop in safety standards under the new VHF Bylaw. He was killed in a fatal crash on the Gardiner Expressway, in an Uber car driven by a man in just his second day on the road.

And in a February 6 guest column in the Toronto Star, Cameron’s mother Cheryl Hawkes argued that her son’s death, “is proof that Uber drivers need training”.

Traditionally, all taxi drivers were required to pass through a three-week training course, but the City’s training school was mothballed with the passing of the new Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw in 2016 (even though the City’s Licensing and Standards Committee had recommended mandatory safety training for all PTC, and taxi drivers.

In response to a public safety backlash, in December of 2018 Toronto Council unanimously passed a resolution directing MLS staff to examine, “all measures to increase public safety, and the training requirements for drivers” in its forthcoming VHF Bylaw Review.

In a letter to the Star, Toronto resident Jeff Green deemed Hawkes’ column, “truly heartbreaking”, and alleged that Uber was “fear-mongering”, by warning consumers that for them to increase passenger safety to meet the current standards would result in a rise in prices.

In a January 28 article, Uber Canada general manager Rob Khazzam told the Toronto Star, “no one is more committed” to improving safety than his company. But he warned that any new training regulations, “shouldn’t be so onerous that they discourage drivers from signing up to work for the company”, thus reducing the availability of its’ popular service to consumers.

He said Uber will continue to work with the City to ensure Uber drivers are operating safety. And he says the company has introduced several new safety measures over the past year, including a feature forcing drivers to log off the app after 12 hours of use, to ensure they’re well-rested.

But, Ward 11 Councillor Mike Layton told the Star he doubts mandatory training would drive Uber out of Toronto.

“I think that we need to focus more on public safety, rather than some company’s ability to make money,” he said.

City Taxi owner Avtar Sekhon is among many cab industry leaders who believe the City definitely lowered the bar under the new bylaw.

“The taxi drivers had to go to school for three weeks,” he emphasizes. “They had a Geography exam at the end. GPS (does not replace that knowledge).”

Furthermore, he believes the City should mandate in-car cameras into all PTC’s.

“No matter what, you need cameras,” he continues. “TTC buses have cameras. They should have cameras, and 911 emergency lights on the back.”

Rashid Thattha, owner of Able Atlantic/Maple Leaf/ Imperial Taxi claims “everybody knows” it has become a race to the bottom under the new bylaw – resulting in untrained, often “unprofessional” drivers.

“The City has to think about these things. But they don’t care,” he alleges.

“The PTC’s, they should have everything we have -- cameras, emergency lights. Whatever (standards they) built up over the years are crumbling, to accommodate somebody else.”

Lucky 7 Taxi owner Lawrence Eisenberg suggests the Uber business model precludes Uber, and its’ predominantly part-time drivers from facing major expenses like cameras – but at the cost of public safety.

“Everything they have to do costs them money. The more it costs them, the more the public is going to have to pay,” he alleges. “(But) it’s a fact of life, if you want security you have to pay for it.”

“There are 72,000-plus Uber vehicles out there. They’re going to put cameras in all their cars at upwards of $2,000 apiece?”

And he suggests the public is, “their own worst enemy”, willing to roll the dice on safety for the sake of a cheaper ride.

“The taxi industry is regulated, and the City sets the prices. Now, the City wants (to license) other companies, because they can make more money. All it is is a cash grab,” he adds.

“(But) with taxi school gone, once they let the cat out of the bag, they’re screwed.”


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