Uber rape charge highlights safety concerns for car-hire startups

For the new ride-sharing startups battling city regulators, it can feel like one step forward and two steps back.

UberLyft, Sidecar and a handful of other new services have emerged to let you order a car from your smartphone. Among them, Uber has received the lion’s share of attention for its livery-service black cars that can be requested with the swipe of an iPhone app.

But this week, Uber is embroiled in a storm of negative press, which throws the issue of safety into the spotlight.

One of Uber’s contracted limo drivers is accused of raping a 20-year-old female passenger in Washington D.C. The Washington Post reports that a dispute has subsequently erupted between local D.C. police and District prosecutors on whether the driver will be charged.

The car service faces further scrutiny, with The New Yorker reporting the company recruited drivers for Austin, Tx.-based conference SXSW with a Craigslist ad, and the background check lasted just 45 minutes (a driver revealed that 25 minutes of that time involved filling out forms).

Lyft and Sidecar work a little differently from Uber and have stressed their commitment to safety.

“We have an onboarding process for drivers that is better than any other company in the space,” said Lyft CEO Logan Green in an interview.

These San Francisco-based services say they perform stringent background checks on drivers, which they take responsibility for hiring, so they claim to be far safer than a black cab or limo.

Lyft’s Green told me that the founders had originally intended to hire female-only drivers. This idea was thrown out, but the company enacted strict standards to safeguard passengers.

Drivers are automatically disqualified if they have been involved in more than one accident in the last three years or have received two traffic tickets or a driving violation. Lyft performs a criminal background check, which it cross references with the sexual offender list for every county a potential driver has lived in for seven years.

“It is impossible to create something that is 100 percent safe, but startups like ours can control conditions to make things as safe as possible,” said Green.

Likewise Sidecar cofounder Jahan Khanna said that security is the “prime concern,” and so the company also invests in thorough background checks.

Uber has hit back by clarifying that the accused driver worked for a service called Capital Limo and that the partnership has been terminated. Uber doesn’t hire drivers directly but partners with black car and taxi companies that employ licensed drivers.

Still, the company has been accused of letting the issue of safety slip, especially with regards to background checks.

This news comes just a few short weeks that Lyft received word that California’s Public Utilities Commission would be dropping fines and a cease and desist, so it could continue to operate.

Here’s what an Uber spokesperson had to say about the company’s safety policy:

Uber only partners with limo companies that use drivers that are insured and licensed to drive a for-hire vehicle, and as such are regulated by the jurisdiction that licensed them. Uber also interviews and screens all drivers that come onto our technology platform.

Unlike a taxi that you hail on the street, when you use Uber to get a ride, you know who the driver is, their phone number, and license plate number, and you have the ability to offer instant feedback to us if there is a problem.

In California, where the regulators have green-lighted ride-sharing — or rides provided by drivers not specifically licensed to drive a limousine or taxi, Uber is instituting every precaution to ensure clients are just as safe in a ride-sharing vehicle as they are in one regulated as a sedan-for-hire. Uber provides excess liability insurance coverage of ride-sharing drivers, conduct thorough criminal background checks and Motor Vehicle Record pulls, and enforces a zero-tolerance substance policy, among other safeguards.

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