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Uber adds 'panic button' in India to boost rider safety

The panic button comes a couple of months after a woman was allegedly raped in India while using the car-hailing service.

Uber is trying to improve its security in New Delhi. Uber

Car-hailing service provider Uber will launch new security features in India designed to improve rider safety.

Starting Wednesday, Uber riders will find a "panic button" in the Uber app, a feature that would them to immediately call for help and connect with local law enforcement in the event of a problem, the Guardian is reporting, citing conversations with company officials. In addition, Uber will unveil a "safety net" that will let users automatically share their ride data, including trip plans and location, with up to five people.

Uber's new security features come a couple of months after a 26-year-old woman was allegedly assaulted and raped by an Uber driver in India's capital territory of New Delhi. The driver, Shiv Kumar, was subsequently arrested and is awaiting trial. Uber, which expressed outrage at the alleged crime, was soon banned from India for failing to have proper licensing for its drivers. The service has since come back to India's roads after applying to be considered a taxi company under Indian law.

Safety concerns have come front and center not just for Uber, but also for taxis and other ride-for-hire services following a spate of incidents around the world over alleged sexual assaults, kidnappings and beatings.

In reaction to those incidents, companies like AsterRide and Shuddle in the US have played up safety features in their apps, such as adding panic buttons and passenger tracking, along with heightened driver background checks and all-female driver teams.

San Francisco-based Uber performs background checks on drivers, but a number of its drivers have faced a string of allegations over the last several months, including dozens of claims of sexual assault, groping, kidnapping, and physical assault, according to media outlets. Just days after the woman in Delhi was allegedly assaulted, an Uber driver in Boston was arraigned on charges of rape, assault to rape, kidnapping, and two counts of assault and battery after allegedly attacking a young woman in his Uber car.

Last month, the woman allegedly raped in India sued Uber, saying that the company failed to provide adequate safety protocols. The woman, who was not identified in the lawsuit, said that Uber should update its security by providing a 24-hour customer support hotline and in-car cameras.

Uber has acknowledged that it needs to improve its approach to security. In December, the company's head of global safety, Phillip Cardenas, said in a blog post that Uber has "more work to do" in safety, adding that his company "is committed to developing new technology tools that improve safety, strengthen and increase the number of cities and countries where background checks are conducted and improve communication with local officials and law enforcement."

In November, Uber started a safety review to identify new technologies, such as biometrics and voice verification, to enhance driver screenings and background checks. Uber also said it is working to make it easier for riders to communicate with the company and is building "Safety Incident Response teams" to provide support to customers during emergencies.

According to the Guardian, those response teams are now being formed and will also respond to Indian riders whenever they press the panic button in-app. However, Uber has stopped short of putting physical panic buttons in cars that might be more accessible to riders. The company has argued that it cannot do so because it doesn't own the cabs and that such buttons would be vulnerable to wear and tear, unlike a button placed in its app.

Since returning to India, Uber has initiated several new security protocols, including forcing all riders to undergo background checks before being allowed to return to duty. The company has promised that even more safety features will be forthcoming.

It's unclear, however, whether some of the security features rolled out in India will make their way to other countries.

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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