In the spring of 2018, a Lyft driver named Samuel picked up a young man in blue jeans at a busy intersection in downtown Los Angeles. At the time, Samuel, 47, had around 3,000 Lyft rides under his belt.
As Samuel accelerated, his passenger inched toward him and pulled out brass knuckles. He interlinked them with his right finger, and raised his fist to Samuel’s face. “How much do you value your life?” he asked, before demanding Samuel hand over his iPhone and debit card, and ordering Samuel on a detour into a residential neighborhood, according to a Los Angeles Police Department report reviewed by Motherboard. (We agreed to only identify Samuel by his first name in order to discuss a traumatic experience.)
Soon, Samuel arrived at a palm tree-lined cul-de-sac overlooking the 101 freeway, and the man told Samuel to get out of the car, removed Samuel’s glasses from his face, searched his pockets for cash, and pushed him over a guard rail, down a steep ravine. As Samuel tumbled some 30 feet, the man sped away in his car. Samuel's ankle and leg had twisted during from the fall. With the help of a woman who lived nearby, Samuel called an ambulance.
The next day, Samuel received a notification that Lyft had deactivated his account, he said. When Samuel contacted Lyft and told them what happened, the company apologized for the deactivation—a mistake, a representative told him. Lyft said told Samuel it would investigate the assault, and promised he would never be paired with this passenger again. (It did not specify whether this man would remain on the app.) The police recovered Samuel’s car. Days later, Samuel’s account was reactivated, he said.
“You think it's hard for a woman rider to file a complaint? Try being a woman driver and filing a complaint about a rider. You never hear back and in most cases, the rider continues to be able to use the platform.”
Since August 1, at least 27 Lyft users have sued the company for assaults committed by drivers on the app. These lawsuits claim the company is not doing enough to protect its customers on the platform. Some of the complaints allege that Lyft allows drivers accused of rape and assault to remain on the app. In other cases, the company allegedly failed to do an adequate background check on the driver involved. A number of people have claimed that Lyft dismisses passengers if they reach out to the company for help about driver misconduct. Last week, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sent letters to Lyft and Uber raising concerns about passenger safety on the platforms, which cited reporting by Motherboard.
While concerns about Lyft's handling of rider safety have come to the fore, drivers told Motherboard that Lyft does even less to protect them from assaults and harassment by passengers. After Motherboard’s recent reporting about passenger safety on the app, dozens of drivers—mostly women—emailed us with their own stories of assault and harassment on Lyft.
“You think it's hard for a woman rider to file a complaint? Try being a woman driver and filing a complaint about a rider,” one woman who drives for both Lyft and Uber wrote to Motherboard in an email. “You never hear back and in most cases, the rider continues to be able to use the platform.”
Samuel said the rideshare giant didn't cover the costs of his hospitalization, stolen iPhone 7, wallet, nor the three months he spent recovering from the injuries without pay. Because Lyft and Uber drivers and other gig economy workers are classified as independent contractors and not employees, the company is not responsible for paying for worker’s compensation, disability leave, health insurance costs, or other damages—protections most full-time employees have under the law.
“Lyft didn’t give me a penny. They just apologized a thousand times for what happened,” Samuel, who is originally from Mexico, told Motherboard in Spanish. That day he lost $1,270 in cash and stolen property, according to the police report, which does not include hospital bills and the three months of income Samuel lost while recovering from the injuries and trauma.
“I was really scared. He had my license and my debit card with all my information. I was scared he would harm my family. I was scared all the time.” Since the assault, Samuel quit driving for Lyft and has started delivering pizza.
Drivers note that Lyft and Uber riders aren’t required to use their real names and don't undergo background checks like drivers do. Riders can use prepaid debit cards and can order rides for passengers other than themselves.
To be fair, rape and assault allegations haven't plagued just Lyft. Uber has had its own share of high-profile safety problems. But Lyft nearly doubled its market share since 2016 in part by advertising itself as a “safer” alternative to Uber.
Assault has always been an issue for for-hire drivers. Taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers, according to a 2010 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report. But experts believe the frequency and gravity of assault and misconduct is likely greater on Lyft and Uber than in traditional yellow cabs. In part, this is because more women drive for the apps than for traditional taxis—but also because rideshare companies lack the regulation of the taxi industry, said Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings who studies both the gig economy and the taxi industry.
In the 1990s, taxi drivers in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York passed laws requiring the installation of bulletproof partitions to protect drivers from passengers (and vice versa). A second wave of cities including Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin later required yellow cab companies provide their fleets with surveillance cameras. Studies have shown that taxi driver homicide rates are three times lower in cities that require security cameras. (Security cameras are more effective than scratchy, plastic partitions at preventing drivers from being assaulted, which is notable given that they're significantly cheaper to install, especially considering that the vast majority of rideshare vehicles are not purpose-built taxis.) Uber and Lyft vehicles are exempt from being required to provide partitions or surveillance cameras; many of these laws were written prior to the advent of rideshare apps. Some rideshare drivers buy their own cameras.
Taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers. But experts believe the frequency and gravity of assault and misconduct is likely greater on Lyft and Uber than in traditional yellow cabs.
When asked why Lyft does not supply cameras and partitions to its drivers, a spokesperson responded, “The vast majority of Lyft drivers use their own personal vehicles when driving for Lyft so we are limited in our ability to require specific modifications. More than 90% of drivers nationally drive fewer than 20 hours per week, 76% of drivers drive less than 10 hours a week...That said, there is nothing stopping those drivers who desire these modifications from installing them.”
A large part of Lyft’s argument against providing standard security features to their drivers hinges on their insistence that drivers control their own working conditions—they drive where and when they choose in the privacy of their own cars. This argument has allowed the company to shirk responsibility for providing workers with basic benefits and labor protections like worker’s compensation, overtime pay, and health insurance, and basic safety features—while the company has rapidly expanded. But Lyft's logic seems to fall short when one considers that Lyft siphons off a large chunk of the earnings on each ride, sets wages, and has the power to both hire and fire drivers by deactivating them.
In 2014, New York City required all cab companies post a sign in their cars visible to passengers that reads: “ATTENTION: Assaulting A Driver Is Punishable By Up to Twenty-Five Years in Prison.” Legislators carved Uber and Lyft drivers out of the law. In many cities, taxi commissioners are obligated to immediately contact the police in the case of an assault.
When questioned why the Lyft doesn’t provide drivers with these signs, the spokesperson said, “While I can’t speak to that consideration specifically, we have hundreds of employees across many dedicated teams including Product, Growth, Support, and more working on end-to-end efforts to keep riders and drivers safe, ranging from driver eligibility to tools and processes to app features, and addressing incidents.”
These regulations did not arrive overnight, but after decades of driver organizing in urban centers in the 1990s and 2000s. “Over the past 30 years or so, there have been strong regulations put in place to make drivers safer in taxis. But all of those regulations are gone for Lyft and Uber,” said Dubal.
The isolation of gig workers also increases the risk of assault. While Lyft and Uber drivers cannot communicate with other drivers over the app, taxi drivers have radios that allow them to connect to other drivers and managers at all times for support. “You’re on dispatch, so people are always listening,” said Dubal. “And anytime a driver is killed, assaulted, or raped, it’s a huge deal, because it’s a unified industry. Everyone rallies around the driver and goes to the funeral. There’s camaraderie and community amongst taxi drivers that we don’t have on the apps.”
Lyft told Motherboard that drivers should first contact the police when in danger, and that the best option drivers have for reporting an incident to the company is by clicking the ‘contact’ button in the app. “If the issue doesn't fit any of the items in the menu, drivers can request for a customer support associate to reach out,” the spokesperson said. “If you feel like your safety was put at risk, after calling 911, drivers can connect live with a specially-trained associate within just a minute or two.” Drivers told Motherboard that the wait time can be longer and assistance is often unsatisfactory.
According to a recent Washington Post investigation that involved interviews with both Uber and Lyft employees working on safety issues, both companies seek to limit their liability for the behavior of drivers and passengers by arguing that they simply serve as a platform for riders and passengers, and do not provide a service. At Uber, safety teams are taught to distance themselves from the purported event when speaking to alleged victims, according to the Post. On the other hand, fleet managers many traditional cab companies bear responsibility for what happens during a ride, and in New York City, they must provide worker’s compensation to drivers injured on the job.
Transportation experts say that more data on rideshare assault is desperately needed. Both Lyft and Uber have promised to release reports on sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment on their platforms—but neither have followed through, and members of Congress have begun looking into doing their own investigation. “In the yellow cab industry, you can easily get this information. There are numerous reports,” said Dubal. "But [for Lyft and Uber] it’s not accessible because everything happens behind closed doors.”
“Safety is fundamental to Lyft,” a Lyft spokesperson told Motherboard. “Since day one, we have designed policies and features that protect drivers and riders, and are continually developing new tools and processes to strengthen our platform as part of our ongoing efforts to keep our entire community safe.”
Lyft also notes that it provides drivers with in-app emergency assistance, a two-way rating system that promises never to re-pair drivers and passengers when either receives a rating of less than 3 out of 5 stars, and a trust and safety team, which handles reports of assaults and misconduct on a 24 hour critical response hotline. The company also has driver advisory councils in most major U.S. cities, which are “designed to bring grassroots driver feedback directly to Lyft.”
On September 10, in response to the sexual assault lawsuits, Lyft announced several new safety features, most of which make rides safer for riders, not drivers. Starting in October, the app will require drivers undergo mandatory sexual harassment training in partnership with Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, as well as continuous DMV background checks. A letter from Lyft’s president John Zimmer that same day announced that both drivers and passengers alike will soon receive a notification from the app asking if support is needed when a trip takes longer than usual. (The feature relies on data from millions of rides.) In April, Lyft implemented continuous background checks on its drivers.
These are welcome changes, but many drivers say that they regularly have poor experiences with the app and its trust and safety team, which runs the critical response hotline.
Erica Mighetto, a Lyft driver in Sacramento, said she is harassed by passengers nearly every weekend. “On a Friday or Saturday night, when I’m giving 20 or 30 rides, it’s quite likely that one or two of those passengers takes things too far, and I’ve most certainly been sexually harassed,” she said. Mighetto has been asked on dates, touched, and told by men in “veiled prostitution soliciations” that they would pay her hourly Lyft earnings “just to go to the bar and hang out with them.”
Once, a passenger who wanted to spend the evening with her used the “lost item line”—intended to be used by passengers who forgot a wallet or other item in the car—to call her 15 times after getting dropped off. Mighetto said she reported the passenger using Lyft’s 24 hour critical response line. “We never want you to feel uncomfortable during a ride. I assure that you won’t be paired with this person again,” a Lyft representative wrote to Mighetto in an email reviewed by Motherboard.
The company does not inform drivers or passengers when their complaints result in deactivation, though it does occur on both ends of the app.
Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United in Los Angeles argues that Lyft’s favored solution of not pairing drivers with the same passengers after a complaint does not resolve the problem of harassment or assault: “What about the next driver who happens to assist that same passenger? What if something dangerous happens?”
“The thing is Lyft and Uber aren’t taking the issue of safety as much as they need to, whether it’s driver safety or passenger safety,” Moore continued. “We see these things as the same issue. If you report something, it should be taken seriously.”
Missy Waddell, a 34-year old Lyft driver from Sacramento with more than 20,000 rides across three platforms, said that she had to start tweeting at Lyft to get its attention about incidents on the app. “I’ve been given the robot apologies, scripted responses... They make it extremely traumatic to report anything,” she said.
Waddell said she has been kissed, groped, spit on, and screamed at by passengers. In 2017, on a ride to the airport in San Francisco, a man popped open a bottle of beer, and began asking Missy about her politics, calling her an “idiot” and a “dog,” and telling her people like her “need to die.” The passenger grabbed her by the neck, she said.
“Drivers have had their cars stolen by passengers, and then face deactivation. It’s like the wild, west west. There are no rules."
She called Lyft to report the event, and spoke to a representative. Waddell said that Lyft employees giggled and laughed in the background during the call. Lyft later reviewed the phone call and apologized in an email reviewed by Motherboard. “I have listened to the call in question and I am disheartened about the service and lack of sensitivity you received when reporting such a traumatizing and frightening incident,” a trust and safety representative wrote. "I am so so sorry."
A law, known as AB5, which recently passed in California, could force Lyft, Uber, and other apps to provide job protections and safety measures for workers that the companies have long circumvented.
AB5, which goes into effect on January 1, could reclassify gig economy workers as employees instead of independent contractors, forcing apps like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash to pay for workers’ compensation, unemployment and disability insurance, sick days, overtime pay, and a minimum wage. If reclassified under the new law, Lyft and Uber drivers could have the right to form unions, and a driver's union could demand greater safety measures and transparency from the companies.
“If drivers are considered employees, companies will have a stronger obligation to create a safe workplace, and so they’re much more likely to report these incidents and take measures to keep drivers safe,” said Dubal. “Not only do they have to pay for worker’s comp and healthcare but they also have a legal obligation to create a safe workplace. There will be actual financial incentives for [keeping drivers safe].”
Both Lyft and Uber, along with DoorDash, have pledged $30 million each to repeal the legislation in a 2020 ballot initiative.
“Drivers have had their cars stolen by passengers, and then face deactivation. It’s like the wild, west west. There are no rules,” said Moore, the organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. Moore played a key role in building a base of drivers that pressured legislators to pass AB5. “We are really fighting for regulation of the ride-share companies. We want to be classified correctly as employees and for them to take responsibility for our safety and the safety of passengers.”
Mighetto, the Lyft driver from Sacramento, told Motherboard that she rarely hears back from Lyft when she reports passengers, and that AB5 will help fix this problem by forcing Lyft to treat their drivers like real employees. “Ninety percent of the time when I report a rider I do not get a response whatsoever. I think that by calling us independent contractors, Uber and Lyft are robbing us of human resources. AB5 will be a great path to getting us some of those human resources that we need to really address this important public safety issue.”