has been taking heat for assaults that happen during its rides. Some passengers have alleged they were raped, kidnapped or forcibly groped by drivers, while some drivers have reportedly been attacked by riders.
Aiming to avoid more of these incidents, the ride-hailing company has been working on new features that could make its trips safer. On Tuesday, Uber announced an in-app 911 emergency button that's now available to all passengers in the US. A similar button will roll out to drivers this summer.
"Users have told us, 'Something to give me peace of mind is a way to access emergency features,'" Sachin Kansal, Uber's head of safety products, said in a phone interview. "We are making this very accessible right from the home screen."
Uber gives millions of rides per day, but a small handful of those rides have reportedly ended in dangerous situations. Nine women are suing the company, claiming to have been sexually assaulted by drivers, and several states, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Texas, have launched investigations into Uber, alleging that the company routinely fails to screen drivers adequately and has hired drivers with criminal histories.
Uber has acknowledged the problem. Last month, it launched several new safety programs, including tougher driver screenings that require annual background checks. It's also testing a new in-app design that will stop giving drivers a log of passengers' pickup and drop-off addresses.
Meanwhile, the company has built a global team of former law enforcement officials to handle requests from police on active investigations. And in April, it named former US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson as chairman of its Safety Advisory Board.
In addition to the 911 button, Uber is piloting a new feature in seven cities that will send a rider's location and trip details automatically to an emergency dispatcher if the rider hits the 911 button in the app. Kansal said it can often take responders several minutes to find out where a caller is located, but with the app location information, dispatchers can get to a person in need more quickly.
"In such situations, every second counts," he said.
Uber plans to roll out the location feature nationwide after testing it in Denver; Charleston, North Carolina; Naples, Florida; and three areas in Tennessee, including Nashville, Chattanooga and Tri-Cities.
For situations when passengers can't access their phone to tap the 911 button, Kansal said the company will continue to figure out more features that focus on safety.
"We see this launch as one of the steps we're taking to keep our users safe," Kansal said. "We see this as a significant step, but not the only step."
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