Boston Uber driver charged with rape. Is it time for some real changes yet?

By Michael Carney , written on December 17, 2014

From The News Desk

Less than two weeks after an Uber driver in Delhi, India was charged with raping a female passenger, the company is facing similar charges much closer to home. Tonight, CBS Boston reports that an Uber driver named Alejandro Done stands accused of raping a female passenger picked up in Cambridge on the night of December 6.

According to news accounts of the assault, shortly after picking up his victim, Done told her that she would need to pay cash for the ride – in direct conflict with Uber’s seamless payment model – and subsequently brought her to an ATM. After she returned to the car with her cash, Done allegedly drove to a secluded area and jumped into the back seat of the vehicle.

According to a statement by the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office:

He allegedly struck her with his hands, strangled her, locked the car doors so that she could not escape and covered her mouth so she could not scream. During an ensuing physical struggle, the defendant allegedly sexually assaulted the woman.
Done has been arraigned on charges of  rape, assault to rape, kidnapping, and two counts of assault and battery according to the District Attorney’s office, and hill be held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing on December 24th.

A statement by Uber spokesperson Kaitlin Durkosh reads:

This is a despicable crime and our thoughts and prayers are with the victim during her recovery. Uber has been working closely with law enforcement and will continue to do everything we can to assist their investigation.
According to Uber, Done had passed a background check and was a registered driver on the company’s ride-sharing platform, UberX. But, the company adds, he was not on call at the time of the attack and not the driver to which her ride was assigned. It’s unclear how Done chose his victim and how he knew she was waiting for another Uber driver at the time.

While Uber was quick to offer words of support in this incident, it does little to curb what has become an epidemic of bad behavior by its drivers. This includes, in recent months, alleged incidents of kidnapping, assault, and others rapes, including incidents in Chicago and Washington, DC.

Earlier today, newly hired Head of Global Safety Philip Cardenas published a blog post acknowledging Uber’s need to improve its driver screening procedures and its overall safety procedures:

We owe it to all our riders, driver partners and communities around the world to examine what we can do better and then do everything we can to make more progress on safety. ... But we have more work to do, and we will do it. Uber 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.
This isn’t the first time Uber has used the “off-duty" explanation to avoid taking responsibility for assaults by its drivers, including one incident that resulted in the death of a six-year-old San Francisco girl who was struck by an Uber car driver who was between fares. Criminal charges in that case are pending, while widely anticipated a civil action has yet to be filed. As Pando previously uncovered, Uber has also been found to have approved drivers on its platform who have prior criminal records. This despite the company’s claims to use utilized “industry-leading background checks.”

This latest incident of rape follows a series of reported lesser sexual assaults allegedly committed by ride-sharing drivers in the Boston area in recent weeks. District Attorney Marian Ryan warned Uber users in a statement tonight, saying:

While these services are a convenience, and often a necessity of modern urban living, we urge everyone to take precautions to ensure they are as safe as possible. Confirm that the car you are getting into is the particular one you have ordered. Be cautious if the driver is asking you to do something that you understand to be against company policy, as when they request you pay by cash when you understand that the company receives payment by credit card.
As we’ve reported at length, this has been a brutal few months for Uber, as the company has faced one scandal after another. In addition to the Delhi rape case, the company stands accused of misusing passenger data, while in another incident a senior executive recent threatened to spy on the families of critical journalists.

This troubling pattern of misbehavior by Uber, its executives, and its independent contractor drivers comes during a period where the company saw its total financing swell to $3.3 billion at valuations exceeding $40 billion. These incidents have also continued despite the company bringing in executive reinforcements from other battle-tested companies like Amazon, AirBnB, and the Obama campaigns.

Uber has built a revolutionary service that has the potential to change the way people travel. But with the company scaling globally at unprecedented rates, it seems increasingly incapable of delivering its service safely and reliably. The question is, at what point will Uber, its management, its investors, and its board of directors wake up to the fact that changes are desperately needed.

Then again, if you follow the logic of disgraced – but not fired – Uber SVP of Business Emil Michael, Pando CEO Sarah Lacy should be held "personally responsible" for these attacks.