Uber rides are getting safer, but the roads are deadlier than ever

Uber trips are getting safer, with the company reporting far fewer sexual assaults in 2019 and 2020 than in previous years. But the number of traffic deaths during Uber rides is on the rise, reflecting increasingly dangerous conditions on American roads.

Uber said there were 3,824 sexual assaults during trips in 2019 and 2020, a 38 percent drop from the 2017-2018 report, which saw 5,981 attacks. The reduction may be related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in an 80 percent drop in Uber’s ride-hailing business during 2020. Still, Uber says the majority of trips, 99.9 percent, happen without a safety incident.

Uber says 20 people died in physical assaults in 2019 and 2020, an 18 percent increase from the previous report. Among the dead were 15 riders and five were drivers. And, 12 of the 15 riders’ deaths were caused by a third party or another rider. (An Uber spokesperson did not respond to questions about the remaining three deaths.)

In 2019 and 2020, 101 people died on Uber’s platform, including 14 drivers and 19 riders. The remainder of those killed were other vehicles, motorcyclists or pedestrians. Notably, there were 23 pedestrians killed by Uber vehicles and three cyclists or scooter riders. The company uses the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s methodology and data standardization to assess vehicle accidents and deaths.

Uber says traffic deaths per vehicle mile traveled rose 7 percent between the two reported timeframes but the company’s fatality rate was still half the national average. The company said more than half of the deaths were related to risky driving behavior, such as drunk driving, lack of seat belts or speeding. And 94 percent of the deaths were caused by third party drivers.

Traffic deaths are skyrocketing across the country, with the government reporting that 2021 was the bloodiest year in decades. NHTSA estimates that 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic accidents last year, a 10.5 percent increase from the 38,824 deaths in 2020 and the highest number since 2005. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called it a “crisis on America’s roadways”.

In a statement, Uber’s chief legal officer Tony West said that while Uber was getting safer, “behind every data point lies a personal experience, and sometimes pain and loss, that must be acknowledged.” He also highlighted Uber’s commitment to being transparent about incidents in its vehicles.

“To be clear, disclosing our security data doesn’t necessarily mean that Uber’s platform is less secureā€”it just means we’re more honest about rare security incidents,” West said. “Most companies won’t talk about these difficult issues, but pretending they don’t exist only leaves everyone less secure.”

Over the years, Uber has faced a number of lawsuits in relation to an attack on the platform. A Washington, DC woman sued the company for negligence and consumer protection violations after she was sexually assaulted by a driver in 2019. A woman in India, who says she was raped by an Uber driver in 2014, sued Uber in 2017 following an Uber executive ruling that parts of her medical records were forfeited by then-CEO Travis Kalanick. Including other Uber employees were illegally exposed.

Both Uber and Lyft conduct background checks and say the safety of passengers is their top priority. They’ve largely attempted to tackle the issue through tech updates like an in-app “panic button,” which lets riders dial 911 immediately, or ways to report a driver for unsafe activity.

In 2021, the companies joined together to announce a “first of its kind” effort to share information about drivers who have been disabled for committing serious crimes, including physical and sexual assault and murder. Drivers are classified as independent contractors, not employees, which means they can – and often do – drive for both companies.

Lyft released its first safety report last year in which it said 10 people had been killed and more than 4,000 were attacked in physical clashes from 2017-2019.

The issue of safety during ride-sharing trips caught the attention of Democrats in the US Senate, who last month wrote a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi requesting more information about worker safety at work.

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