Uber has once again found itself thrown into a public-relations crisis after news reports alleged that accused murderer Jason Dalton picked up fares as a driver for the ridesharing service between shootings that killed six people on Saturday in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The company’s chief security officer issued a brief statement over the weekend saying that Uber is “horrified and heartbroken” over the violence. Nevertheless, Uber has again found itself on the defensive as critics say the company, which some suggest has a valuation as high as $70 billion, could do more to assure the safety of riders who have in greater frequency come to rely on the service as their main source for transportation.
While Dalton has no criminal record, Uber’s detractors point out that the company has long resisted fingerprinting its drivers. In fact, when the city council of Austin, Texas, voted to launch a program in which ridesharing service drivers could voluntarily register their fingerprints with a third-party registration service, Uber (and its main competitor, Lyft) threatened to leave the state’s fourth largest city. The company has reportedly tested some pilot fingerprinting programs, but it's still steadfast in its refusal to make it a company-wide policy.
Here in the U.S., the requirements for becoming a driver on Uber are fairly basic. Drivers need a driver’s license, proof of automobile insurance with a minimal liability threshold, the submission of a vehicle inspection, and disclosure of their date of birth and social security number. The benefits, according to Uber, are cost-effective rides, the highest wages in the transportation service industry and the ability for workers to be their “own boss” -- although that final point has long been a bone of contention between Uber and many of its drivers.
Could Uber be more thorough in its screening, adding a face-to-face interview along with running more comprehensive background checks? Uber’s response is that such painstaking reviews of drivers would not have screened out Dalton, who in less than one month completed over 100 trips and scored a very respectable 4.73 out of 5 from riders’ reviews.
Another frustration critics of Uber state repeatedly is the lack of a “panic” button on its smartphone app in the event anything goes awry during a ride with the service. After an Uber driver in India was accused of rape last year, the company quickly rolled out an emergency safety alert feature that allows riders to simultaneously alert Uber and local law enforcement. Uber hailed that safety measure as an example of the company’s “commitment to safety,” but the company has refused to install it in here in the U.S. A year ago Uber said it had a plan to install such a feature in Chicago after allegations of sexual assault were made against two drivers, but that plan never came to fruition.
In a conference call with reporters yesterday, an Uber spokesman said that for riders, “911 is the panic button and it’s the panic button we want people to use.”
Details about Dalton and the events of last Saturday’s Kalamazoo shootings are still unfolding, and it is not clear if all these safety measures would have prevented six people from dying and countless more from having their lives shattered. Nevertheless, this young company that is not even six years old has a long history of responding to controversy by hiding behind public-relations jargon with the occasional token philanthropic project.
Hence the company that some say has killed the sharing economy once it became mainstream has reached a turning point. If it is ever going to repair its already dented reputation, Uber has to do and say more than merely insist that nothing could have prevented this tragedy.
Image credits: Wiki Commons (Mxobe)
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.