As Lyft and Uber launched their Initial Public Offerings (IPOs), drivers protested not only their poor pay and working conditions, but also the many threats to their safety. While several news outlets have covered the threats to women rideshare passengers, the violence committed against women and non-binary drivers, particularly those that are Indigenous, Black, people of color, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, Two Spirit, disabled, or Muslim, have gone largely ignored. As the murder of Lyft driver Kristine Howato has demonstrated, there’s an industry-wide safety issue for these workers. I drove for Lyft for a brief period to earn extra money, but after Howato’s murder I tried several times to contact Lyft about what the company would do to guarantee my safety. I never received any response. I soon decided that while I needed the extra money, it’s not worth risking my life for the minuscule amount I earned.
Women make up 20 percent of the drivers for more established companies like Lyft and Uber. Many rideshare drivers entered the gig economy due to a lack of job opportunities and systemic oppression. Many people have had to stay in these jobs longer than expected. Katrina Noell began driving primarily for Uber in Asheville, North Carolina after she lost her retail job. Employment discrimination and ableist workplace policies that make it difficult or impossible for employees to have the flexibility they need to schedule around medical appointments and illness have pushed many with disabilities into driving for these services, such as Kristina C. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Kristina began driving due to the flexibility that she’s been unable to find in other employment. Meanwhile a single Nepalese mom now living in the East Bay in California, who asked to remain anonymous, reported that she drives for Uber because she needs to drop off and pick up her child from school during the standard workday, and traditional employers weren’t flexible.
The nature of who is driving for the rideshare industry only increases the likelihood of violence against drivers due to multiple marginalizations and the bigotry of their passengers. Violent and discriminatory experiences were commonplace for the drivers that spoke with Truthout. In one instance, Noell had to kick a group of cis men out of her car because one of them repeatedly touched her. At the time, she didn’t realize she could report the assault to Uber. Since then, she has begun changing her appearance before she drives in order to be “less appealing” in the hopes that cis men passengers won’t assault her.
Kristina C. reported that a cis man passenger grabbed her crotch during a ride. When she reported this to Uber, the company told her she could contact the police and that the passenger’s account would be deleted, but Uber never followed up with her. She’s not sure if Uber ever followed through, and police in Scranton, Pennsylvania, said they couldn’t do anything “because it couldn’t be proven.” Kristina has noticed that, in her experience, cis men passengers have recently become bolder in their behaviors. “Since the current state of the presidency it seems that male passengers can do whatever they want and get away with it. In the last year it’s sketchy at best,” she told Truthout.
Nicole Pugh, a Black Muslim woman who wears a head cover, drives full-time for Uber and Lyft in Philadelphia. Pugh told Truthout about the many instances of violence and bigotry she’s experienced on the job. She’s had a passenger repeatedly accuse her of being a part of ISIS. Despite telling him to stop, he wouldn’t. When she eventually pulled over and told him to exit her car, he refused. Pugh eventually called the police. When she reported the incident to Uber, company representatives said they’d look into it and she’d never be paired with him again. However, she never received any follow-up. In another instance, Pugh said she had a gun pulled on her by a man in another car who chased her down because he mistakenly thought the passenger in her car was the person he was looking for. The driver chased her until she was finally able to get somewhere public to wait for the police to arrive. Uber took three to four weeks to even respond to her report. Since these incidents, she no longer drives late nights, which are generally the time for the highest earnings due to increased user demand. Pugh said to Truthout, “We’re risking our lives to make [Uber and Lyft] millions and we only get pennies. The only thing you can offer us is to launch an investigation?”
Mel W. B. told Truthout that, as a woman of color, she felt “hyper-aware” of the threat of violence when she drove. “The subtle flirtations by some men in the daylight turned more aggressive with nightfall, and caused me to feel that I had to be guarded and give a cold demeanor,” she said. “I went from carrying just mace, to a switchblade nestled under my thigh, to a combination that included storing multiple tasers in different locations of the front my car. One very scary night had me fearing for my life, less worried about if I would be raped, and more worried about never making it home to my children. The extra money to pay bills no longer outweighed the fear.”
This violence is financially devastating and only made worse by the anti-worker policies of these companies. Kristina C. reported that Uber refused to cover repairs to her car due to damage by passengers. Rate cuts have become commonplace as well. In order to make Uber and Lyft’s recent IPOs look more profitable, they’ve made significant rate cuts for drivers. Rebecca Stack of San Francisco told Truthout that she lost approximately $1500 a month due to Uber’s rate cut during the holidays.
Reporting passengers can also lead to a loss of earnings. In one instance, Stack spent almost an hour filing a complaint with Uber. The person she spoke with at Uber then deactivated her account by accident and it took them two and a half days to fix their mistake, which meant two days without pay. “I call and make a report to do the right thing and I got punished,” she said, adding, “Every time I’ve called Uber or Lyft support, I’ve struggled to get anyone to understand what I’m saying.” Reports often lead to a “very scripted, canned response” with no follow-up, according to Stack.
Having one’s rideshare driver’s account deactivated after defending oneself is a common fear expressed by the drivers that spoke with Truthout. In Philadelphia, Angela Vogel drives for Uber Black, the company’s luxury car service. While Vogel was waiting for a passenger, a group of drunk women leaned on and spilled drinks on Vogel’s car. After Vogel exited the car to tell the women to stop, one of the women dumped a cup of alcohol over Vogel’s head and punched them. Vogel didn’t defend themself, however. They said in the moment they thought, “I’m gonna be deactivated. In that minute that I paused, she clocked me really hard. I ended up on the ground, had bruises, and had to search for my keys … She was a rich white girl punching low-wage workers.” Because these women weren’t Vogel’s passengers, they were unable to report the women to Uber. Vogel and other Uber drivers instead had to follow the group around and tell every Uber that stopped for the group about the assault so that these drivers could stay safe from them.
Vogel also prefers the term “transportation network company” to “rideshare” due to the important distinction in existing rideshare services, such as public transportation or disability ride services. From the driver’s perspective, the safest situation is for passengers to sit in the rear seat, behind the passenger seat. However, shared rides don’t always allow for that, and they often place drivers in more dangerous situations by allowing passengers to sit directly behind the driver or in the front seat.
Drivers aren’t supposed to carry weapons when driving, but out of fear for their safety, some women and nonbinary drivers have ignored this rule. Stephanie Bailey drove for both Uber and Lyft as a way to make ends meet. “My first night driving I took a jar of change to a coin star for gas money and a box cutter for protection. Even though most of my fares were women going to manufactured town centers for drinks, I knew that each rider request was a gamble.” It was soon after that she bought a Taser.
Drivers have formed online groups and are working with organizations such as Gig Workers Rising in order to advocate for their rights. Despite this, driving is still a threat to their lives. Bailey told Truthout that “When I was driving, I had a little community of women drivers and we would keep tabs on each other and check in throughout the night. We referred to Uber as our pimp. We were out in the streets all night and most of the fare the rider paid went to Uber. I think the only difference is a pimp would have had our back if something went wrong. Uber just told us to uninstall and reinstall the app.”
Vogel explained that driving for a living is “inherently dangerous.” Taxi drivers have the highest murder rate based on profession, but the safety protocols for taxi drivers versus rideshare drivers are vastly different. Rideshare drivers don’t have dividers between the front and back seats, and their cars aren’t identifiable, so bystanders may think issues of violence are personal issues among people in the car who know each other. Cab drivers also choose where they drive, so they tend to know the areas they serve better than rideshare drivers.
Vogel hopes that Uber and Lyft’s IPOs — which require that companies show their earnings, losses and any potential lawsuits or other issues that could impact the worth of the company and its stocks — will result in a release of information on passengers that will show the full picture of issues related to driver safety and worker’s rights. Prior to the IPOs, both companies refused to release this information. Drivers hope that the IPOs will bring more transparency. Right now, Uber and Lyft don’t require a clear face picture or legal name for passengers, and many drivers are hopeful that this will soon change.
While working for rideshares companies is inherently dangerous, companies can make changes to their safety policies, such as allowing drivers and passengers to choose the gender of drivers and passengers. A newer company, Safr, which states it is “built with the needs of women in mind,” is doing just that. Safr also has several in-transit security features. For example, when the car arrives and before the ride begins, the driver and passenger have to confirm that they’ve received the same identification code before the passenger enters the car. There’s also a 24/7 ride-tracking center and a panic button that allows users to send an alert to the service, the authorities or a personal contact if something goes wrong.
Recently, Uber and Lyft drivers have staged multiple protests across the U.S., bringing more attention to drivers in the gig economy. Kristina C. said that more than anything, she wants the public to understand that “we’re doing a job. We’re just out there trying to pay our bills like anyone else.”
Lyft did not respond to requests for comment. Uber replied with a copy of its rules and regulations that can be accessed online.