Off-duty Uber driver accused of sexual assault in LA, continuing a troubling pattern

By Michael Carney , written on February 3, 2015

From The News Desk

When your business involves connecting real people in the offline world, there’s a lot more opportunity for things to get messy than in an online-only business. It’s a painful lesson that sharing (or on-demand) economy companies like Uber, AirBnB, and others have been forced to learn repeatedly in recent months and years.

Thanks to the sheer size, ubiquity, and frequency of usage of its platform, Uber has emerged as the poster boy for such atoms-versus-bits reality checks. In what is becoming a recurring theme for the company, yet another of its driver-partners has been accused of sexual assault.

This time, a Los Angeles driver, who was off duty at the time of the incident, is accused of picking up a female passenger in her 20s who was waiting for another of the company’s drivers in LA’s Mar Vista neighborhood late on Saturday night and assaulting her before dropping her off at her destination.

"He said, 'I'm actually not working as an Uber driver right now, but I am an Uber driver,'" LAPD Det. Kimberly Porter tells ABC7. "She got in the front seat. He then took her to a location where he did sexually assault her."

Police have identified the suspect, who they describe as cooperating, but have not yet made any arrests. An Uber spokesperson said in a statement, “The driver in question has been removed from the platform while we gather the facts.”

There remain far more questions than answers when it comes to Uber’s culpability in this situation. For example, did the suspect have a history of this type of behavior or other criminal activity that should have precluded him from passing Uber’s (often-suspect) background checks? If so, then the company has some explaining to do, but if not, then there’s seemingly little the company could have done to prevent such an attack. Also, did the visibility of passengers on the company’s in-app map play a role in the suspect targeting the alleged victim, or was this an unfortunate coincidence of a roving driver offering a waiting pedestrian a ride? We've seen the company's maps used in the past by police and auto-thieves to locate and target drivers; could it be that in this case they were used to target a waiting passenger? It's too early to say, but the possibility is troubling.

This incident underscores a point that Uber has long emphasized which is that riders should verify both the driver photo and the vehicle license plate (both provided within its app) before entering a vehicle. With the alleged victim entering a vehicle other than the one Uber dispatched to transport her, and seemingly doing so knowingly, this advice was obviously not followed.

Uber also encourages riders to use in-app security features to share their route and ETA with friends and loved ones before each ride. The victim in this case did not have a cell phone, according to police, and the Uber was requested from a friend’s account, negating many of these available security measures and violating Uber’s own Terms of Service (TOS) which require that the account-holder be present during any ride.

As we have stated in the past, getting in a vehicle with a stranger will always be a potentially risky situation, whether that vehicle is an Uber, a Lyft (Uber’s main competitor), or a traditional taxi, whose drivers themselves have a history of passenger assaults. For that matter, being a driver for these services can be dangerous in its own right. Where Uber has gotten itself in trouble in the past is in misrepresenting the nature and effectiveness of its driver screening measures. It remains to be seen if this applies in this particular situation.

The main problem for Uber is that its reputation is under attack. The company’s drivers have been accused of rape or assault in New Delhi, Chicago (twice), Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and other cities. Adding Los Angeles to that list doesn't really change the narrative, it only reinforces it. Each unfortunate incident, whether a result of failures by Uber or entirely unavoidable, compounds and further chips away at the trust that the public and regulators place in the service. With a $41 billion valuation and plans to reach global ubiquity at risk, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

We will update this post if additional information becomes available.