When will politicians wake up to urgent need for strict ridesharing regulation?
by Mike Beggs
Just like the January 2018 death of Toronto’s Nicholas Cameron in an Uber car, so the recent slaying of 21-year-old South Carolina student Samantha Josephson at the hands of a fake Uber driver has further galvanized concerns about the training and safety standards of Private Transportation Company (PTC) service.
Cameron’s inexperienced Uber driver was in only his second day behind the wheel when he crashed on the Gardiner Expressway, prompting the City to reexamine the idea of mandatory driver training (which was abolished under the Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw, of 2016). And similarly, after a week of candlelit vigils within the community of Columbia, the South Carolina House passed the Samantha Josephson “Ridesharing Safety Act” bill, which would require all PTC vehicles to display illuminated signage to make them easier to identify. It passed through the House by a 99-1 count, and now advances to the Senate.
As The New York Times noted, such attacks show the vulnerabilities of the pervasive ridesharing culture, where fake PTC drivers are known to idle outside at closing time, some displaying Uber or Lyft stickers easily purchased online.
“I think every place across the country, every university needs to take note that this is a real danger and we need to take precautions to educate everyone that this is a possibility,” said State representative Seth Rose, co-sponsor of the bill.
A senior at the University of South Carolina, Josephson ordered an Uber outside a Columbia bar at about 2 a.m. after a night out with friends. Surveillance cameras showed her entering a black vehicle that turned out not to be her ride. Fourteen hours later, her dead body was discovered in a field 90 miles away, showing multiple sharp force injuries.
Columbia police have arrested and charged Nathaniel Rowland, 24, with kidnapping and murder. When police pulled over his black Chevrolet Impala, they found blood that was later matched to Josephson’s and her cell phone, along with bleach, germicidal wipes, and window cleaner. The child safety locks were on in the back seat, preventing her possible escape.
Detractors allege that cities across North America have compromised public safety, by allowing PTC’s open entry to the market under watered-down rules (while paying municipalities like Toronto 30 cents on every run). They allege many Uber cars remain unmarked, in violation of bylaws which simply aren’t enforced.
“How many more lives need to be sacrificed before regulators insist on properly identifying each, and every Uber and Lyft vehicle?” asks Mississauga owner Peter Pellier. “More to the point, when will the general public wake up to the reality that calling a cab is infinitely safer?”
“It’s amazing what people are willing to risk to save $5 or $7,” adds veteran Toronto owner Bob Boyd.
Toronto owner/operator Frank Kelly cites the bedlam downtown on a Friday or Saturday night, when hundreds of young, oft-inebriated Millenials exit the clubs, searching for their Uber or Lyft among the many cars pulled up.
“It’s the Wild Wild West,” he says. “I see no safety. They’re all waving their phones at any driver. Most of them don’t check. They’re just in a rush to get home.”
University of South Carolina students have started a new safety campaign that urges riders to ask, “What’s my name?” to make sure they’re dealing with their assigned PTC driver.
And Josephson’s father Seymour has dedicated himself to pushing for higher PTC safety standards.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through this as a parent,” he said, poignantly.
In an April 2 statement, Uber said it has been working with local law enforcement and college campuses across the U.S. since 2017 to educate the public about how to avoid fake rideshare drivers. The company advises consumers every time they take an Uber to use their app to match the license plate number, match the car make and model, and check the driver’s photo.
“Everyone at Uber is devastated to hear about this unspeakable crime,” the statement read.
While working hard to improve its image before filing for its IPO, the $72-billion Silicon Valley giant continues to battle the bad publicity stemming from crimes committed by its drivers.
Over the past year, Uber has introduced a panic button for passengers to alert 911 and annual criminal background checks, ceased its’ policy mandating arbitration for individual claims of sexual assault or harassment, and is preparing an in-depth transparency report on its’ staggering 221 instances of sexual assault in 2017.
Last September, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said he aspires for Uber to be, “the safest transportation platform on the planet.”
In the wake of the Josephson murder, the company introduced a new push notification reminding riders to verify it is their Uber driver and vehicle before climbing aboard.
But critics say Uber – and Lyft -- have a long way to go, as they still fail to provide proper markings, FBI finger-printing as part of driver vetting, and mandatory security cameras in every car (like with taxis).
“It’s just one thing after another with these people,” says Mark Sexsmith, marketing manager for Mississauga’s All-Star Taxi, of the Josephson murder.
“There’s just a giant lack of control over what’s going on.”
Such concerns were lent further validation by the April arrest of a Toronto Uber driver alleged to have sexually assaulted two different women over the past year. Police say, in both cases, the women entered a black SUV they believed to be their Uber, only to be confined in the vehicle, taken to a quiet side street, and allegedly raped by 36-year-old Taneem Aziz, of Mississauga.
Atrocities like this have become all too common across the U.S.
On March 11, the Associated Press reported from Alabama of a, “Fake Uber Driver With Unconscious Woman In His Back Seat Arrested For Kidnapping.” In his car, police investigators found a loaded handgun (for which he had a legal permit), and on his cellphone multiple images of at least one other college-aged woman, who appeared unconscious in his vehicle. While being taken into custody, the driver wore a T-shirt emblazoned, “So when’s this old enough to know better supposed to kick in?”
In late February, the Chicago Sun Times reported that a “Man Tried To Lure Kids Into A Minivan By Posing As An Uber Driver”, on the city’s North side. According to police, it was about 1:15 p.m., when students from Alcott College Prep East were on recess, and the man pulled up, gestured for them to approach him and said, ‘I’m your Uber driver, get in the car.’
The students quickly sought help from a staff member, and the suspect drove off.
The fakes aside, last year CNN reported that at least 103 Uber drivers had been accused of sexually assaulting, or abusing their riders over a four-year period!
Witness the details surrounding the August of 2017 rape of a 26-year-old Miami woman by an Uber driver, who had picked her up outside a club while she was “doubled over vomiting”. She got in the front seat, and he allegedly digitally penetrated her while driving, and then pulled over and raped her.
When brought in for questioning but still not aware he was a suspect, Special Victims Det. Michelle Farinas says the driver bragged about having “good sex” with the victim, and that one of the perks of being an Uber driver is that, “you get a lot of pussy”.
In early April, a Washington, D.C. woman filed a $10-million civil suit against Uber for negligence and a consumer protection violation, after she was sexually assaulted by one of its’ drivers on April 1, 2018, The Verge reports.
The victim (“Jane Doe”) alleges that while Uber claims to be a safe mode of transportation for women, in fact they are putting women – particularly women who are inebriated -- in harm’s way.
Her driver is being depicted as an “employee or agent” of Uber, while the company classifies its’ drivers as independent contractors. Uber has settled several such cases for undisclosed amounts.
But both Uber and Lyft have steadfastly refused to use FBI fingerprinting, as part of their driver vetting process. And San Francisco attorney George Gascon told 9 To 5 Mac, “without FBI fingerprinting their checks are completely worthless.”
The article noted that Uber and Lyft continue to use a “budget background checking service (called Checkr), three years after it was revealed their checks have missed the criminal records of more than 25 drivers. Uber maintains its’ screening process, “stacks up against the alternatives.”
In 2017. Uber was fined $8.9 million by the state of Colorado for allowing almost 60 people with criminal records, or motor vehicle offences to work as drivers. Meanwhile, the Justice involved in one sexual assault case deemed the company’s record for cooperating with law enforcement to be, “horrific”.
What’s more, Uber’s female drivers have accused the company of failing to support them, after they have been assaulted by passengers.
In a March 2018 article in The Guardian, Veena Dubal, an associate law professor at the University of California, Hastings observed that, “People involved in class action suits against Uber want the public, the state, and Uber to recognize that their experiences are not random. They are the result of a structural problem. They want Uber to make changes.”
On April 2, ABC News reported that San Francisco’s “Rideshare Rapist” was scheduled to hit court again, after pleading not guilty to attacks on four women over five years, while driving for Lyft. The accused, Orlando Vilchez Lazo was in the U.S. illegally. Lyft says he “fraudulently represented himself when signing up as a driver.”
“I can find out more about an Amazon seller, than I can about the Uber or Lyft driver I’m about to get in a car with,” observed personal injury attorney Meghan McCormick.
In Boston, a bill has just been proposed that would require FBI fingerprinting for Uber and Lyft drivers, the Boston Herald writes. These measures are being pushed by the Ride Share Massachusetts coalition, in response to what they describe as, “a non-stop series of violent assaults against women by drivers working for these ridesharing companies.”
“This needs to be dealt with, how widespread a problem it is,” advocate Scott Solombrino told the Herald. “There is a lack of protection. Women have been getting into these vehicles not knowing the truth, and I think it’s a problem. We’re not anti-PTC, but we think they should have requirements.”
The coalition is also working on a bill to require random drug checking of drivers, which they say is even more critical now that recreational marijuana is being sold.
And following South Carolina’s lead, Jersey City could become the first New Jersey community to require ridesharing vehicles to clearly identify themselves with illuminated signs.
Related to the South Carolina murder, Toronto cab industry observer Rita Smith deemed it, “a complete and utter failure of common sense” by governments to let standards get so lax.
“Who did not see this coming?” she asks. “What were the regulators thinking to let unmarked Uber cars pick up anybody? How many hours did we sit at Toronto Council and beg them not to do this?”
Of the bill calling for illuminated roof-lights, Boyd says, “I think it’s very diplomatic. The politicians (had to do something). But I think it would help.”
However he notes the expense of rooflights, and cameras runs contrary to the Uber and Lyft business model, which is predicated on recruiting new drivers on a continual basis. Uber and Lyft both say such upfront expenses would dissuade new drivers from signing up, and maintain their app’s driver tracking and rating features provides safety for consumers.
“I don’t think they’d get the drivers,” he adds. “They’re mostly part-timers wanting to earn a few dollars for cigarettes and booze for the weekend, or taking the wife out for dinner.”
Veteran Toronto owner/operator Gerry Manley believes such crimes will continue to escalate, because municipalities don’t enforce against the PTC’s, and consumers are not checking the app to make sure it’s the car sent to service them.
But while both politicians, and PTC’s say consumer safety is their first priority, he alleges they don’t walk the talk.
“Uber talks out of the side of their mouth, just like the governments,” he alleges. “They can’t provide any responsible level of safety with the number of vehicles continually coming in and out of the system.
“And until governments are hit with civil suit after civil suit nothing will change, regardless of what we are being told.”