A Michigan TV station reported that an Uber passenger hailed a ride in Kalamazoo, Michigan, while police hunted for a mass murderer only to have the suspect answer his call.
The passenger, identified only as Derek by WOOD-TV, noticed that the Uber car was similar to the one connected to the fatal shootings of six people in Kalamazoo on Saturday. “I kind of jokingly said to the driver, ‘You're not the shooter, are you?’ ” Derek said, “He gave me some sort of a ‘no’ response ... shook his head. I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m just tired.’ And we proceeded to have a pretty normal conversation after that.”
The chilling encounter between Derek and Jason Brian Dalton, 45, the suspect charged Monday with six counts of murder, vividly illustrates how little passengers know about the drivers in rideshare services – and the risk of not knowing.
Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services based on mobile phone technology offer convenient transportation and provide flexible income for drivers. But the service that cuts through the red tape and expense of licensing a taxi also cuts away the regulations and reviews that protect passengers from getting into cars with dangerous drivers. Uber and Lyft do not employ the drivers. They use them as independent contractors and hire other companies to conduct background checks on drivers. That arm’s-length relationship saves on costs, but it also forsakes oversight and accountability.
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Uber stresses that it conducts full background checks on drivers and that their performance is monitored by passengers who rate drivers. But whatever is being done is not enough. The Kalamazoo case is a stark example, but complaints about assaults and bad behavior by rideshare drivers have been building since the app-based services began, starting with Uber in 2009.
State and federal regulators and lawmakers must set a higher standard for vetting drivers that ensures that Uber and other ride-share drivers meet at least the standards of taxi and limousine drivers.
Meanwhile, ride-share services must be required to add a panic or SOS button to their apps that will alert police and the rideshare company when passengers sense they are in danger. Uber added the button for passengers in India after a Uber driver was accused of rape, but it is not yet available elsewhere.
The mobile-based sharing economy offers greater opportunities to save and earn money, but those new benefits need to be balanced by old-fashioned rules that reduce risk.