University of Waterloo study finds rapidly evolving vehicle-for-hire industry rife with heightened health and safety risks for drivers and consumers
by Mike Beggs
Despite the image of intimacy and transparency associated with peer-to-peer ridesharing connections, the findings of a new study indicate, “there exists an interconnected risk landscape for rideshare and taxi drivers, the riding public, and society.”
Released by the University of Waterloo Faculty of Applied Health Sciences on November 1, the “Ride-Share Health And Safety Participant Feedback Report” observes that while ride-share companies claim features like tracking, passenger driver ratings, and cashless transactions make passengers and drivers safer than traditional taxi services, “the precariousness of ridesharing work is evident in driver experiences of health, safety, legal and financial risk of self-employment.”
The study focused on one large urban centre, and is time-sensitive to 2017-’18.
While many Private Transportation Company (PTC) drivers were initially attracted to the idea of working when they please, the ease of access to the platform, and the high recruitment bonuses, researchers determined they were not making much money, didn’t always trust incentives such as surge pricing, and found added pressure from app-level rules and penalties.
“Unique risks associated with ridesharing applications existed in ratings, distractions, and app penalties and rules which created particular pressures for drivers,” the report reads.
Add to that financial pressures, as the streets fill up with an unlimited number of Ubers and other PTC’s.
“When I started, I made approximately $15 an hour. And when I cut up my expenses, I end up making, like $7 or $8 an hour,” says Sanjay, one Uber driver interviewed for the study.
Ride-share managers argued that driver and customer safety has benefitted from their built-in safety features, and that, “customers trust us”. One reasoned that taxi regulations were outdated; and he questioned the need for a traditional driver training course (taking three to five weeks), “when we have GPS technology, when we have the star rating system.”
But the researchers found that while rides, routes and user profiles were tracked, passenger identities were not always known by drivers, as a user may have ordered a ride for someone else, like a child or friend.
“And what’s to stop me from handing my keys to my best friend, because he wants to make a few bucks? Do you in fact know who’s driving the car?” adds Toronto owner/operator Gerry Manley. “How many consumers check that the photo sent to them is actually the driver (picking them up)?”
“These safety measures are questionable at the very best, but the riding public they don’t care,” he continues. “And the people who don’t make a full-time living (driving for Uber), they’re really street drivers. They have no experience driving consumers. It’s a big difference.”
Brampton A-1 Taxi general manager Makhan Dhother acknowledges tracking features make customers feel safer, but he notes, “crimes against passengers is an ongoing problem with PTC’s.”
He suggests because they’re not mandated to have in-car security cameras, drivers aren’t as afraid of getting caught committing a crime.
“Taxis have a camera right in front, and police have access to it,” he stresses. “And because many Uber drivers don’t use the ID stickers, there’s the incidence of people getting in the wrong vehicle and being taken for a ride. It’s a huge danger. In the taxi, you have a roof-light on, numbers on the side, and emergency lights. You know what vehicle you’re getting into.”
He blames governments for letting the standards slide.
“They’re not caring for their citizens,” he adds. “They say it’s the consumer’s choice.”
Beck Taxi operations manager Kristine Hubbard suggests the PTC driver rating system has created “a false sense of security”.
Mississauga cab industry veteran Mark Sexsmith finds consumers overwhelmingly like the convenience and safety built into PTC app technology, as well as the typically lower fares.
“The customers just feel more secure. If they get a bad ride, they can rate it and they won’t get that driver again,” he offers. “The cashless nature of transactions is just great. The people want that (convenience, and it’s safer for the driver).
“But (PTC’s) do need better driver training, and better safety training.”
The study found that rideshare drivers, like cabbies, are facing harassment and assaults from passengers, and that the PTC rating system lost significance over time for drivers and passengers.
“Driver ratings emboldened passengers, who pushed drivers to take risks,” it reads. “Passengers asked drivers to drive quickly, make illegal U-turns, and add more passengers to a vehicle than permitted.”
Further to the point, researchers learned that operating the app while driving was distracting to drivers, because they were reluctant to ignore the pings indicating an order.
“It’s while you’re moving that you have to take the ride – otherwise it will go to someone else,” explains an Uber driver named Ralph. “You get punished for not taking the ride immediately. But the pings while you’re moving is very dangerous.”
The researchers also cited, “a lack of support for (PTC) drivers when things go wrong.” And while in-person services were available, “staff were not knowledgeable, and often were unable to resolve problems.”
“If I have a question, I can’t directly e-mail them anymore, which kind of makes me uncomfortable,” says Erica, an Uber driver.
“You can’t really voice your opinion to a checkbox,” complains another driver.
It was found that for hire drivers continue to experience serious hazards such as assault, lack of support, and economic and technological pressures to drive longer hours and take driving risks.
“There’s an environment of stress, and that makes it more difficult for people to make good decisions,” Hubbard observes.
The study determined that taxi and ride-share drivers face similar health problems related to long hours of work and being sedentary: back pain, weight gain, lack of bladder breaks, and poor diet.
“These health risks can be related to their lack of control over earnings, combined with different economic and technological pressures on the job,” it reads.
Researchers found the rapid market and regulatory changes in ground transportation exacerbated the mental and physical health stress on taxi drivers -- forced to work longer hours, while earning less.
“The driver’s income has gone done drastically. It’s risking the driver’s safety, big time,” says a cabby named Sudi, who now finds himself working seven days a week.
Cab drivers were found to develop more serious health conditions (kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, and musculoskeletal conditions), which may reflect the cumulative effect of prolonged exposure to work-related health risks.
“It is possible that ridesharing drivers who continue to drive may develop these kinds of health conditions,” the report reads.
As an Uber driver named Umair told the research team, “After 13 or 14 hours of driving continually, I feel like I’m walking on the moon.”
The report found that rideshare drivers, like cabbies, had poor job security.
“They were fearful of being punished by Uber, by being removed permanently or temporarily from the app for reasons beyond their knowledge. Poor ratings could result in “deactivation from the app without notice,” it reads. “And as companies like Uber amass large user data sets and are currently developing driverless capabilities, drivers said they were, “working themselves out of a job.”
The study notes that a growing number of Canadians, and people around the world, are precariously self-employed (under the “Sharing Economy” model), and that driving for taxi and ridesharing companies falls outside the safety net of minimum wage, health and safety protection, and retirement benefits.
It was found that PTC drivers lack access to the right to a safe workplace and to worker compensation, and that the majority of drivers interviewed did not meet their obligations in paying taxes, or declaring to their insurer they were using their personal vehicle for commercial purposes.
The study found that, “rideshare companies promoted driving as an easy and lucrative option, and downplayed the risks and obligations associated with it.” Rideshare managers said that work-related health was “difficult to address”, because some drivers operate part-time, do not fit a single occupation or demographic profile, and are independent operators.
But one of the report’s key findings was that passengers were enthusiastic about rideshare options, and willing to tolerate the risks (such as inexperienced drivers, lack of insurance coverage, and sexual harassment).
“They like the short wait times, and low cost. They felt drivers were more accountable than taxi drivers, and that they felt safer in PTC’s because of features like tracking, and matching profiles,” it reads.
Taxi industry leaders question the municipalities’ decision to abandon driver training courses and and other safety provisions in licensing PTC’s. They say it has created, “a race to the bottom”.
And an Uber driver named Jessica suggests, “The rideshare licenses should say ‘License for someone who has handed in a criminal background check’. So this person should not feel like they are ready to go out and drive a taxi and move people around our city… The training that the City used to do gave them an opportunity to license or not, depending on their discretion.”
The report notes that municipalities across Ontario have chosen to regulate ride-share services through changes to licensing bylaws – creating a separate licensing category for PTC’s. It says municipal regulators also saw the need to update taxi regulations, “as bylaws had become complex and overstepped their reach.”
Meanwhile, Provincial regulators (responsible for occupational health standards) were found to be, “struggling to devise policies to protect workers, and regulate work among self-employed people.”
The report concludes that, “Legal experts in occupational health law and labour identified longstanding, legal ambiguities in taxi driver status, and more recently, ridesharing driver status. These ambiguities are associated with poor earnings, and poor health and safety outcomes. As the number of people in this category is growing, so does the significance of this issue.”