Uber and Lyft Under Fire for Sexual Assault Allegations in Austin

Austin police are currently investigating seven claims against Uber and Lyft drivers who have been accused of sexually assaulting passengers over the past few months.

The ride-sharing businesses have only been operating in the city for about a year, and yet five claims against Uber and two against Lyft have brought both companies under fire.

The complaints were received between April and August, and each case claims to have occurred late at night when the rider was alone with the driver. Currently, no arrests have been made and the cases are still under investigation.

Allegations against Uber drivers have been reported over the past year in the U.S., India, France, China, and Canada. In August, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles said Uber had failed to detect the criminal records of 25 drivers both cities had hired.

Texas is also no stranger to these incidents. Last week, a Lyft driver was held on $1 million bond after allegedly raping a passenger in Dallas and similarly in August, an Uber driver was accused of sexual assault.

In response, the Austin City Council is considering a proposal that would require Uber and Lyft drivers to undergo fingerprint-based criminal background checks. It also initiated a process that would require similar rideshares, known as transportation network companies (TNCs), to pay an annual operating fee to the city, part of which would go toward road maintenance.

Uber and Lyft oppose these propositions, claiming their background checks are sufficient and that mandating fingerprint-based background checks would add another complication for their drivers, discouraging potential drivers from signing up.

Both companies say they run applicants through a third-party national criminal background and driver check (Uber uses Hirease) and have a zero tolerance policy for anyone with a felony criminal conviction. Uber claims it rejects anyone who has a history of violent crimes, sexual offense, gun-related violations, or resisting arrest as well.

In March, UN Women announced they were partnering with Uber to create 1 million jobs for women as drivers on the Uber platform by 2020. However, just days after the announcement, UN Women withdrew this affiliation. The short-lived initiative was met with heavy criticism due to Uber’s record of disregarding safety concerns from female riders and drivers. A letter published by the International Transport Federation criticized the partnership.

According to data shared by Wefi Intelligence, Uber boasts 10,000 drivers in Austin. However, Lyft’s “engagement rates” (percentage of a city’s population that opened the app) – are close to half of Uber’s.

Potential riders are advised to take the following precautions when using Uber, Lyft or any ridesharing service:

  • Verify the identity of your driver and the car before you enter.
    Uber provides riders with their driver’s first name, picture, license plate number and vehicle type as well as their driver’s rating. For Lyft, you’ll see your driver’s name, estimated time of arrival (ETA), rating, photo and a picture of their car.
  • Wait inside until your ride arrives.
    You will receive a message when your driver has arrived, preventing you from waiting in an unsafe area.
  • Don’t use an Uber or Lyft car that you did not order yourself.
  • Share your travel information with someone you trust.
    Some riders choose to talk on the phone or text with a friend, sharing location details and ETA. Uber’s app enables you to send your ride information to a friend via a special link, so they can actually see the car moving along the distance and be aware of when you arrive.
  • Take note of your driver’s rating.
    Both companies employ a rating system that allows riders and drivers to rate each other. You can see if your driver has a previous track record of complaints and bad behavior, or if they’ve been given the green light.
  • If your driver arrives and you aren’t 100 percent comfortable, don’t take the ride.
    Go with your gut. You can always request a new ride if necessary.