I've never used Uber, but can count the friends who haven't on one hand. Being able to take your phone and, within minutes, summon a nice, clean car to take you home after a night out is more convenient than Seven Eleven is for cigarettes. Perhaps it's because of its growth spurt in popularity that reports of people having bad experiences with Uber drivers are piling up week on week.
Too often now we're hearing of new drivers being investigated for alleged sexual assault. In December, an Uber driver in Boston was actually charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting a young woman. And we all know about the Delhi rape trial.
Uber's driver vetting process has been subject to extensive public scrutiny, and the company's vice president, Emli Mitchell, left a sour taste when he suggested that the company (labelled "transport's bad boy" by the Telegraph) hire a team of researchers to dig up dirt on critical journalists. Mitchell then decided to publicise the personal life of a female journalist who criticised Uber and said that she no longer "feels safe as a woman taking it, frequently late at night and alone".
That young women – certainly the young women I know, at least – see the service as a safe means of transportation bears repeating, though. Women are using Uber every night, everywhere. But despite it being a warm, late night lifeline for many – and the fact that most people are having a lovely time with the service – the quietly menacing accounts of drivers being either a bit letchy or aggressive are plenty.
On Saturday morning, I received an email from a 20-year-old woman called Caitlin, who said that an Uber driver had left her on the side of the A12 road at 3AM after becoming aggressive following her request to change course mid-journey and take her back home.
"I was taking the cab on my way out to a party to watch my brother DJing. Only, he rang me and said not to bother coming as it was too late, so I asked the driver to take me home," wrote Caitlin. "Or even just to the next exit, which he'd be driving towards anyway, so I could find another cab office or get a bus. The driver then asked me to cancel the trip on the app and put in a new destination."
After asking how to input the new postcode, the driver became angry. "He raised his voice, turned back towards me and waved his finger around, telling me that I'd 'closed his line' and he wasn't going to get paid for this." She had, it turned out, accidentally cancelled the trip. But by "this", in any case, he meant taking her to the next exit so she could safely look for another way to get home.
The driver then pulled over by an SOS phone under a bridge, on a busy section of the A12 near Stratford ("I had absolutely no idea where I was at this point"), and told her to call for help there, suggesting that maybe someone would pick her up to take her home. Just to be clear here: this is a young woman (who says she was "stone cold sober") being left on the side of a motorway, in the early hours of the morning, over a few quid.
At this point, Caitlin thought she'd chance requesting another Uber – maybe there'd be a sympathetic driver close by. There was, and one arrived minutes later, at 3:16AM. Only, when he did, questioning why the other Uber car was still hovering in the hard shoulder in front, he said very little before slowly rolling his window up and driving away. "I told him I'd been left by the other Uber, who was worried about losing money taking me any further, and he said nothing," says Caitlin. "He just drove off, looking apprehensive."
Then she decided to take the first driver's advice and use the SOS phone.
The "kind man" on the other end of the line sent two police cars out, presumably worried that something serious had happened. After what the woman says was a "45 minute wait" beside the busy motorway, the cars arrived. One of them took her towards Walthamstow – near where she lives – and dropped her at a local minicab office. She got a cab the remainder of the way home.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police confirmed her story this morning, saying, "Police were called at 3:22AM to assist on the side of the road. They located the subject and assisted in the journey home."
"It wasn't the policeman's job to take me home," says Caitlin. "But he took me from the A12, all the way through Leyton and close to where I live. I'm new to London and don't have anybody to call or any sense of direction yet, so being taken that far was incredibly kind." She says the policeman driving her remarked on how far she'd have had to walk along the motorway to the next exit, should no assistance have been available.
After several phone calls with a representative from Uber over the course of the morning, a spokesperson has issued the following statement:
"The safety of our customers is Uber's top priority. Our partner drivers are aware that they should only drop off in areas in which it is safe to do so. Furthermore, drivers are expected to accept pick-ups unless there is a very good reason that they can't, for example because of car trouble. We are always sorry to hear of any customer's bad experience and we reached out promptly to deal with this complaint."
In this case, that "very good reason" for these men was, seemingly, a fear that they'd not make a fare. Or, in the case of the second driver, that Caitlin was unreliable-looking – that, if one man had left her, she must be dodgy. At 4AM, standing on the side of a motorway, in just a few degrees above zero.
We're not talking about a drunk, volatile woman causing a kerfuffle and threatening to vomit all over the back seats before running off without paying (Uber takes the money straight from your bank account) here. No. This was a man – two men – thinking it fair game to leave a young woman on the hard shoulder of the A12. That's the bones of it. Everything else is incidental.
In my communications with Uber, the representative – who, to his credit, appeared to take the incident very seriously – said it took him a long time to get hold of the drivers in question, and that he could only surmise that there had been some serious miscommunication at the scene. There is, after all, no proof of verbal exchanges.
But again, at what point does "miscommunication" eclipse the safety of another human being? This is what "the scene" looks like in the daytime:
At night, it's loud, dark and frightening. The exits aren't clear, there's no easy escape off the hard shoulder into residential or green areas and you can't get onto the bridges from the road. At the time of going to press, Uber have not said they are going to suspend or investigate the drivers in question – presumably it's too much of a he-said, she-said situation. But why on earth a young woman would choose to remain on the hard shoulder of a motorway in the freezing cold and use an SOS phone to get home is anyone's guess. Something happened – whether it was "miscommunication" or not – because the police have confirmed they assisted her. That part, at least, is not subject to debate.
Of course, what we're really dealing with here is short-tempered men in a position of power – a meek power, but one nonetheless – with the ability to inflict aggression upon female passengers with little or no accountability. In this case, Caitlin spoke in detail of how the driver lurched around the side of his seat and shouted at her, before kicking her out and leaving her to fend for herself. But without any kind of surveillance system, who can prove that? Who will believe her?
That a taxi driver can kick a woman out of his car on the motorway in the early hours of the morning and have it labelled as "miscommunication" is something that needs urgent attention. Maybe in some warped way he thought, because the phone was there, that it was "a safe drop off" place. But that another came along and saw it fit to leave her there is, truly, a bleak and frightening new chapter in the Uber story.
Mind you, what's a woman's safety at 3AM in light of a few quid, eh?
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