Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Will the new feature keep passengers safer?
After beta-testing in Kolkata, Uber announced today via blog post that its SOS Button feature will now connect riders in crisis directly with law enforcement officials throughout the Indian city.
Record of Assaults in Cars
It's unsurprising that Uber has chosen India's capital city as the site to launch the new button. The country is Uber's largest market outside of the United States, and a highly-publicized assault in New Delhi last winter raised questions about passenger safety. A New Delhi woman who says she was raped and beaten by an Uber driver in December is suing the company in a California court, seeking unspecified damages and asking for an overhaul of passenger security practices.
Following the allegations, the car service was banned in New Delhi, but allowed to resume service in January after saying it had amped up its safety features.
How The New Button Could Help
The SOS button, which is on the top-right corner of the interface, transmits location information and passenger and driver identities to local police. The car's exact location (tracked via GPS) will be projected on a screen in police control rooms and updated in real-time. Here's how it works:
In addition, riders can share their itinerary and location with up to five pre-selected friends and family.
Why It's Not Enough
Certainly, concerns about passenger safety aren't limited to people who summon Ubers in India. A number of alleged assaults have also been reported stateside, in Boston, Chicago, D.C., and other cities. While the blog post says that the company is in "advanced discussions with authorities in multiple cities across India to deploy this solution in the coming weeks," it hasn't released information about any plans to implement in the tool in the U.S.
The Uber app does have some built-in passenger safety features, including driver photos. Riders can also review drivers, offering a platform to air concerns. According to the company's website, Uber also has a multi-pronged vetting system that screens potential drivers against county and federal courthouse records and the National Sex Offender Registry, among others. But a bill introduced in California in February contends that this system puts too much of an onus on riders themselves. The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, argues,
Passengers should not be responsible for determining whether a driver is unsafe; the screening process should make this determination.
The bill originally called for "biometric" background checks, such as fingerprinting drivers. However, in mid-April, it scaled back its requests, says Cynthia Alvarez, a legislative aid for Nazarian. The fingerprint component "did not have enough votes or support to get out of committee," Alvarez told CityLab. The bill is currently en route to the appropriations committee.
Uber did not immediately respond to CityLab's request for comment on its background check and safety procedures.
The Need to Text 9-1-1
Of course, assaults also happen in cars hailed the old-fashioned way. New York City Boro Taxi driver Esa Alusaimi was charged with rape in February, and a yellow cab driver was sentenced to twenty years in prison following a rape conviction last May. As a National Journal piece pointed out, a text-to-9-1-1 option "could be a lifesaver for people with speech or hearing disabilities or in instances like domestic abuse or home intrusion when placing a phone call could put the victim at risk." The same could apply to a threat escalating in a moving vehicle.
As of right now, most states aren't equipped to handle texts to 9-1-1; Vermont is one of the few leading the charge to put citizens in touch with emergency crews when voice chatting is not an option (say, for instance, in a circumstance in which a person doesn't want to draw additional attention). If Uber's SOS Button proves useful in India, similar software could have much broader applications, too.