The most unsettling experience of my life cost me £34.75. At 2:50am on a Sunday morning in February, I got into an Uber – a taxi ordered via the ride-hailing app of the same name. The app informed me I would be home in 26 minutes, but I wasn’t. When I finally opened the door to my flat over an hour later, I burst into sobs.
In an effort to extort more money from our journey, my driver took me all across London – and off the predetermined route Uber had mapped out. On the app, you can watch your journey as it progresses, a little black car moving steadily along a planned blue line. When I realised we had gone a different way, and looked out the window to see we were driving through a deserted industrial estate at 3am, I started to panic. In the end, a £10 journey cost nearly four times as much – but I was relieved. I spent the ride fearing my driver wanted to take advantage of me in a different way.
This wasn’t the first time that it struck me how strange it is that Uber users entrust untrained strangers to drive us around simply because they operate via a sleek, shiny app.
Yet that journey was the first time I fully felt the weight of what this means. The morning after, I Googled to see if my fears were unfounded. They weren’t. From February 2016 to February 2017, there were 48 alleged sex attacks by Uber drivers reported to the police in London. That works out at nearly one attack by an Uber driver in London a week.
Not all of these attacks took place within Uber cars, and Scotland Yard added a caveat to the data that some of the accused may have been incorrectly identified as working for Uber, while not all of these complaints resulted in the drivers being charged.
Nonetheless, it is an alarming statistic. Like black cab drivers, Uber drivers must obtain a licence from their local authority and go through a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, which flags previous convictions. Yet, in 2016, five UK Uber drivers were convicted of sexually assaulting their passengers. In the same year, no licensed black cab drivers were charged with journey-related sexual offences. In July 2017, a London-based Uber driver who waited outside bars to pick up and rape drunk women was jailed for 12 years.
When I get in touch with other women to ask if they have felt unsafe in an Uber, it feels as though everyone has a story. “I’ve never had conversations with people where it immediately became sexual so quickly,” says 22-year-old Akeno Katsuda, whose Uber driver started asking her “invasive” questions about her sex life as he drove her home from a night out. “The fact that he knew where I lived was a little scary.”
Katsuda has other bad experiences – one driver asked her where she was from and said, “It would be nice to marry a Japanese woman because they are sexually subservient”. She isn’t alone. Ellie Dickinson, also 22, tells me about an incident where an Uber driver made lewd comments towards her, even though her brother was also in the car. Aliss Wagner, 23, had a driver who – like mine – took her around London instead of taking the pre-planned shorter route.
“He deliberately put his inside mirror down so that he could see me in it, and kept staring at me through it even while driving,” she says. When the driver stopped at a red light and Wagner realised she wasn’t on the right route, she banged on the car window to attract the attention of a nearby couple. “They looked at me, but then the driver drove away.”
In the end, Wagner was safe – if a little late. As the driver finally neared her destination, Wagner rolled down the window and opened the car door from the outside. “I got out and ran,” she says.
In September 2017, Transport for London (TfL) decided not to renew Uber’s licence to operate in London, accusing the company of “a lack of corporate responsibility” when it came to public safety. A month before this, a Metropolitan police inspector warned TfL that Uber was not reporting serious crimes, a failure that allowed an accused sex attacker to go on to assault a second woman. Though the company is attempting to appeal, traditional taxi drivers are overjoyed about
Other cabs aren’t necessarily safe, though. Uber gets most of the scrutiny because it’s a young tech company that made headlines in 2016, when it emerged its drivers had been accused of 32 assaults in the previous year. Despite the coverage, however, the data revealed that during the same year there were 122 allegations against other taxi drivers in London, including black cab drivers, legal and illegal minicabs, and chauffeur-driven cars. Many women feel unsafe in traditional taxis and some even think Uber is safer, as the app allows friends and family to track journeys. As of February 2018, Uber now also reports crimes directly to the police.
Yet perhaps we expect more of Uber precisely because it is new. The company used technology to make taxis cheaper for everyone – why can’t it make them safer too? It could be mandatory for every Uber driver to install a tamper-proof CCTV camera in their car, for instance, or the panic button in the Indian version of the Uber app could be made available worldwide.
The other solution – that women stop taking Ubers alone, or at all – isn’t always feasible and would be a significant blow to female independence. Each of the women I spoke to still uses Uber, despite their experiences.
“I think it’s just way convenient so I continue to do it,” Akeno Katsuda told me. I have also taken Ubers alone after my unsettling experience. It is not a coincidence that the women I spoke to were aged 22 and 23. When money is tight, and walking home or taking the night bus is the most dangerous option of all, the frying pan can be the only alternative to the fire.
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war