Uber homes in on safety initiatives amid concerns

After a series of allegations of Uber drivers committing rape and other crimes against passengers, the ride-hailing company expands on its safety measures.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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Uber says it's taking steps to increase the safety of its passengers. Above: Indian residents take part in a protest last December over the alleged rape of a passenger by an Uber driver in New Delhi.
Uber says it's taking steps to increase the safety of its passengers. Above: Indian residents take part in a protest last December over the alleged rape of a passenger by an Uber driver in New Delhi. Getty Images

Uber is trying to show the world that it's serious about safety. Acting on users' concerns around security, the ride-hailing service announced Wednesday that it's rolling out a handful of new initiatives to improve passenger and driver safety.

Uber is a ride-hailing service that pairs passengers with drivers via a smartphone app. Since its launch six years ago, the company has gone from a San Francisco-based startup to a multinational service in 295 cities and 55 countries. But with that rapid growth has come criticism about how the company handles safety. Over the last year, Uber has been dogged by allegations of drivers assaulting, raping and kidnapping passengers. The company has acknowledged it needs to improve its approach to security.

"We are committed to ensuring Uber is the safest way to get around a city," the company's head of global safety, Phillip Cardenas, wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "My team and I have conducted an internal global safety review and also worked with outside experts...to identify the best ways to make the platform even safer."

Cardenas said Uber is establishing a permanent global Safety Advisory Board to review the company's safety practices and put together a plan and schedule for the rollout of new security features. An Uber spokeswoman said the company plans to announce more details about the Safety Advisory Board in "coming weeks." Uber is also creating Incident Response Teams in every region it operates in, to be on call 24 hours a day and investigate and respond to "serious safety concerns."

The spokeswoman also said Uber is continuing to look for new ways to boost the trustworthiness of its drivers -- such methods include creating a driver identity-verification system using biometrics, and monitoring drivers to ensure they're driving safely. Uber already makes all drivers go through federal, multistate and county criminal background checks that go back seven years.

Despite these controls, several dangerous drivers have allegedly been able to slip through the cracks. In December, an Uber driver in India was accused of beating and raping a passenger, prompting officials to ban the service in the country's capital of New Delhi. A couple of weeks later, a driver allegedly sexually assaulted and choked a young woman in Boston. Just yesterday, a Philadelphia woman accused her Uber driver of rape, according to Philadelphia magazine. Other drivers have allegedly brandished knives and guns, and punched and beaten passengers.

After the slew of events in December, Uber said it was focusing on safety. Along with exploring new methods to screen drivers, the company said it was looking into ways to let passengers "communicate with us and their loved ones in the event of an emergency." It rolled out features that let riders share their estimated time of arrival with friends and family, as well as share a map of their trip in progress. Uber also added a panic button to its app in India so that riders can immediately call for help.

"We intend to make these and other new features available in the coming months elsewhere," Cardenas wrote Wednesday. "Continually improving rider...safety is the most critical component of what we do."

While Uber is forging ahead with its initiatives, tangible safety improvements may take time, said Parks Associates research analyst Tejas Mehta.

"Uber's new safety initiatives are an acknowledgement of the challenges facing Uber as it attempts to bolster its less than flattering reputation when it comes to rider safety," Mehta said. "These initiatives are steps in the right direction, but it will not be smooth sailing for Uber on the safety front. Many of these initiatives will take time before they show results and Uber will have to stay the course to assure its customers of its commitment to safety."

Updated March 26 at 9:35 a.m. PT with comment from Parks Associates research analyst Tejas Mehta and to clarify in the sub-headline that Uber is expanding on safety measures already announced.