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Uber Drivers Are Victims of Violence Too

December 10, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC

Earlier this year, Tammie Jean, an Uber driver in Los Angeles, had frightening experience while on the job that left her feeling traumatized. Late at night, a drunk passenger became angry, grabbed her hand and tried to pull her out the back door.

Operating on instinct, Tammie Jean stepped on the gas, leaving her assailant behind. Once safe, she called 911 to report the assault.

“I was shook up,” said Tammie Jean, before adding, “I’m always concerned about who’s getting in my car. It is frightening how many stories I’ve heard.”

Last week, Uber published a report detailed thousands of crimes committed during rides. Initial public attention immediately focused on passengers who were victimized, overlooking the fact that a huge number of drivers were also attacked.

Drivers accounted for more than 2,500 of the nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assaults in 2017 and 2018, the company said last week. Meanwhile, of the 19 homicides reported over the two years, seven of the victims were drivers.

The report highlights the dangers that Uber drivers face as they go about their work, alone at the wheel at all hours of the day and night. It also raises questions about whether Uber does enough to protect drivers, who, other than getting an insurance policy, pointers, and some digital tools, are largely left to fend for themselves.

“There are so many things that happens to drivers that no one really knows,” said Tina Raveneau, a New York City driver who’s worked for Uber since 2017. “A lot of drivers feel like no one really cares.”

Uber is the first ride-hailing service to release detailed information about sexual assaults, physical assaults, and killings. The report came after years of intense scrutiny of the company over murders, rapes, and abductions of people using its service.

It’s unclear whether violence on Uber is any more or less than on other modes of transportation. For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which surveyed 14,445 riders (a small sliver of commuters), reported at the end of 2017 that about 17% of riders were sexually harassed within a six-month period. Meanwhile, in New York, more than 530 sex crimes occurred on public transportation in 2018, according to police.

Private taxi companies do not release details about deaths, assaults, or any crimes.

In an effort to keep its riders and drivers safe, Uber has beefed up its teams that are focused on security. It’s also slowly rolling out new safety features, like PIN numbers that match riders to drivers to help prevent fake drivers and unintended passenger pickups. Recently, the company added the ability for drivers and passengers to text 911 through Uber’s app, so that they can discreetly send a vehicle’s location to dispatchers.

“We take our responsibility very seriously,” says Sachin Kansal, Uber’s head of safety product. “We see this as a long-term journey and commitment, so we are far from done.”

Three drivers who spoke to Fortune say that they weren’t surprised by the details in the recent report. When drivers talk to each other in person, online forums, and at labor union meetings, the dangers of driving and safety tips to counter them are frequent topics.

Drivers say that ride-hailing companies—both Uber and Lyft—should do more to protect them like providing rear-facing cameras for drivers so that they can record passengers in the front and backseat. Many also ask that the companies to create a system that can verify a rider’s identity and ideally confirm that a passenger isn’t a threat (Uber conducts background checks on drivers, but not on passengers).

Uber says it began testing a program in July that provides drivers with rear-facing cameras. The program, in which is in partnership with camera and driver analytics company Nauto, is available in seven cities.

In addition to PIN verification, which will be available in seven cities as of tomorrow, Uber said it is developing a tool that would use ultrasound waves from a passengers’ phone to automatically verify them the minute they get in the car.

The drivers interviewed said the companies don’t adequately prepare them for the potential dangers they could face on the road. Uber drivers who meet the minimum age and driving requirements merely sign up to work, pass a background check, agree to terms and conditions, and immediately start their jobs. The company also provides safety tips for riders and drivers on its website and also offers in-person help at its driver assistance centers, called Greenlight Hubs.

“There’s no training or anything,” says Steve, who has driven for Uber in Denver for six years and requested anonymity out of fear that Uber would kick him off its service. “I had to learn the hard way.”

Steve says he was once hit in the head by a drunk passenger’s hand while he was driving. When they arrived at the passenger’s destination, the rider had passed out, and Steve had to call 911 for help.

Over the years, Steve says he’s learned to take extra precautions to avoid potentially dangerous situations—knowledge that new drivers often don’t have when they start. He’s stopped driving at night, even though it pays more, and says he listens to his gut feeling and cancels rides if the situation feels unsafe.

Moira Muntz, a spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Guild in New York City, said women drivers often take extra precaution when working. “Some don’t drive night shifts even if they’d make better money because they just don’t feel safe,” Muntz says. “I’ve also heard some women say it’s affected their strategy on where they drive as well. “

Tammie Jean, the Uber driver in Los Angeles, says she mostly works nights because of health concerns and to avoid high traffic areas. But she worries about safety “every minute of every day.”

Tammie Jean, who allowed Fortune to only use her first name for fear of retribution by Uber, says she’s been prodded and poked, sexually harassed, grabbed, and physically assaulted. She says she told Uber representatives about at least one of her experiences at a driver assistance center, but she said she never received any support or much response.

The drunk man she picked up had been put into her car by friends, Tammie Jean said, to keep him from riding his motorcycle home that night. After the trip started, he told her that he had left his phone behind and asked that they go back to the pickup spot.

Tammie Jean obliged. But when he returned, he reached into the back seat, grabbed his personal belongings, and threw them out as if he was going to ride his bike home. Fearing he would kill someone or hurt himself, Tammie Jean asked the man to get back into the car.

In response, the man reached back into the car, ripped out some decorative beads inside then grabbed her. She said told Uber about the incident, but is unsure whether it was considered a formal complaint.

“Rideshare companies, they don’t reach out to us after and say, ‘Hey, is there any way we can have you treated with therapy or some kind of support. Can we make sure your hand is Okay?’

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s silence.”

Raveneau, the Uber driver in New York, says drivers also fear false accusations that could potentially lead to them losing their jobs. She almost fell victim to a false claim once, she says, after a drunk female passenger in the back seat repeatedly kept asking Raveneau to stop touching her.

“Someone who was with her was saying that the driver is not doing anything to you, she is driving,” Raveneau says. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘If her friend wasn’t with her what would’ve happened?’”

Muntz says that’s why the Independent Drivers Guild has started a petition asking New York City to require new safety measures—including that ride-hailing companies provide in-car cameras—for drivers. The petition, which also asks for wage increases and job security, has been signed by nearly 9,000 people and is expected to be submitted to the city in the next few months.

Meanwhile, the guild offers training courses and therapy sessions for drivers who have had safety problems—something that drivers think Uber and Lyft should provide. But not every city has a guild or network that drivers can turn to for support.

Some people like Harry Campbell, who drove regularly for Uber for several years beginning in 2014 and still occasionally picks up passengers, have taken it on themselves to offer tips, guidance, and insights to help others. Now, he writes a blog called The RideShare Guy that provides on-demand drivers with safety and insurance tips.

“For-hire driving is a dangerous job,” Campbell says. “There’s a reason why there’s a large Plexiglass divider in most cabs.”

Passengers like Samantha Josephson, a University of South Carolina student who was murdered in April after entering what she thought was her Uber, get a lot of attention, Steve said. But stories like Kristina Howato, a pregnant Lyft driver in Arizona who was stabbed to death by a passenger in January, are often forgotten. Police arrested a 20-year-old suspect the next day.

Until companies do a better job of protecting drivers, Steve expects the violence to continue. His advice to his fellow drivers: “Forget all the statistics and all the things Uber wants us to do,” he says. “Just drive and do your best job, and if it ever feels sketchy, cancel.”