With another Uber driver robbed in LA, questions mount about safety of ride-sharing apps

By Michael Carney , written on August 25, 2014

From The News Desk

Uber made headlines last week for announcing that it would soon launch in Tel Aviv, seemingly in disregard for the fact that Israel remains mired in a month-long (decades long, really) conflict in Gaza. But one doesn’t need to look nearly that far to find the company’s drivers dodging bullets.

Case in point, a gunman robbed an Uber driver at gunpoint early this morning in Los Angeles, taking his credit cards and drivers license – news reports make no mention of whether his Uber-issued iPhone was also taken, but this has been a common occurrence. While fleeing the scene, the attacker then shot and robbed an unrelated pedestrian.

Across the country in Atlanta, Georgia, four men reportedly ambushed an Uber driver last week as he was cleaning his vehicle after dropping off a load of passengers. The masked criminals were “brandishing guns” and stole the drivers’ wallet and mobile phone (again no mention of whether this was his personal phone or an Uber-issued device).

This is hardly a rare occurrence. A Google search for “Uber driver robbed’ turns up more than 380,000 results from across the US. Los Angeles, Atlanta, Memphis, Seattle, DC, Ohio, and Virginia are all represented on the first page.

As we reported last week, Uber drives in Los Angeles have been the victims of a spate of attacks recently. Uber drivers and some members of the LAPD have their own theories about who’s behind at least some of these attacks, pointing the finger at Taxi companies upset over rising competition. To be clear evidence is thin, and this is little more than a theory at the moment. Further, the attack earlier this morning does not appear to fit the MO of a coordinated, intimidation-focused attack.

The more pressing takeaway is that being a “future of transportation” driver is starting to look no safer than driving a classic Taxi – in other words, not safe at all. As I noted last week, a 2007 Seattle PI article describes Taxi driving as among the most dangerous occupations in the US, writing:

Since 1980, 1,030 taxicab drivers died on the job. They suffer the highest homicide rate of all occupations. In 2005, taxicab drivers were estimated to be 18 times more likely to die on the job than other working Americans. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported in 2000 that 183.8 taxicab drivers per 1,000 were injured from assaults or other violent acts.
More concerning, is that the very smartphone apps that have made Uber and competitor Lyft so disruptive may be at the same time making their drivers more vulnerable. For a criminal looking to target Uber or Lyft drivers specifically, it’s as simple as opening up the app and viewing the real-time locations of nearby vehicles on a map. There’s an argument that ride-sharing drivers should make less attractive targets than traditional taxis given that they do not accept cash – all payment is handled through in-app credit card processing. But if they’re easier to find, that may be enough to turn these drivers into popular targets.

As it stands today, Uber, like any employer (er, hirer of independent contractors) should be worried about ensuring its drivers’ safety. If this trend continues, the company may need to start worrying about the very mobile apps that drive its entire business model.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]