Ridesharing’s Unexpected Danger? Aggressive Passengers

Dark scary street

When ridesharing first came on the scene, potential customers wondered if they’d be safe: the idea of getting in a car with strangers who weren’t screened or monitored the same way that traditional taxi and car service drivers were made many people hesitant. Sadly, there have been many cases of dangerous rideshare driver behavior and crimes against passengers — particularly the recent murders by an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And whether passengers are any safer in rideshare vehicles than in traditional taxis is still up for debate.

But another risk is less talked about outside of rideshare driver communities: the danger aggressive passengers pose to drivers. Unfortunately we’re seeing an alarming trend of belligerent Uber and Lyft passengers attacking their drivers. Here, we explore some of these frightening incidents and discuss ways drivers and passengers can make ridesharing safer for all.

Uber & Lyft Passengers Are Losing Their Sh*t

Assaults against rideshare drivers appear in the news with frightening regularity. Many passengers commit the assaults while under the influence, though not all cases can be pinned on over-imbibing. A few high-profile examples from the past month:

  • Three intoxicated men in Virginia assaulted their driver with a beer bottle and attempted to steal his keys when he refused to let them drink in the car. The men were all arrested and charged with assault and destruction of property. The driver suffered cuts and bumps, and is reportedly recovering.
  • A Lyft driver was assaulted in Nashville after picking the passenger up from a bar. The passenger was arrested for assault and public intoxication, and the driver ended up in the ER.
  • In Oregon, an aggressive passenger actually stole his driver’s vehicle. The driver reports that the passenger became increasingly aggressive throughout their 10-mile trip, verbally and physically abusing him. When the passenger’s behavior interfered with the driver’s ability to operate the car, he pulled over at a convenience store and went inside for help. The passenger promptly stole, and then immediately crashed, the car. NBC News reports that he was charged with a DUI, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, reckless endangering and intimidation. Fortunately, the driver wasn’t injured.
  • A drunken doctor in Miami assaulted an Uber driver who was waiting for a passenger and refused to let the doctor skip the line. The original passenger caught the whole incident on tape, and the doctor made the morning talk show rounds to apologize for her actions. The driver didn’t press charges so the doctor won’t face any legal repercussions, but she says she’s been subject to harassment online after video of her assault went viral.

Smashed car window

What Are Ridesharing Companies Doing to Keep Drivers Safe?

Uber and Lyft, and other companies like them, can’t simply stop giving rides to inebriated drivers, since curbing drunk driving—and keeping the roads safer—is one of their biggest marketing campaigns (not to mention a large portion of their customer base).

To their credit, Uber and Lyft respond promptly in most assault cases, deactivating the accounts of accused assailants, and offering to aid authorities and drivers in the pursuit of justice. After the aforementioned attack in Virginia, for example, an Uber spokesman said, “We have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of harassment and abuse. We’ve been in touch with the driver-partner and stand ready to assist the authorities with their investigation.”

Uber and Lyft are under no obligation to help injured drivers with medical bills, vehicle repairs, or lost wages since their drivers are independent contractors, not employees. In exchange for the freedom to decide when and how much to work, independent contractors give up other privileges, Forbes explains, such as worker’s compensation. However, the precedent exists: taxi drivers, for example, are entitled to worker’s compensation in several big U.S. markets even though they, too, are independent contractors. But so far the courts have upheld the position of services like Uber, which assert that they should not be legally required to provide contractors with protections like worker’s compensation.

Uber, Lyft not obligated to help injured drivers with medical or car repair bills or lost wages.

Uber’s Toy Experiment

Uber has recently gotten creative to help keep drivers safe and passengers non-violent. The rideshare giant is currently conducting this experiment in Charlotte, North Carolina: drivers will keep Bop It toys in the back seats of their cars in the hopes that the loud, engaging toy will keep passengers who are under the influence–or otherwise feeling aggressive–subdued. Bop It is a children’s toy that became popular in the 1990s and “consists of a stick or handle that is littered with buttons, knobs and cranks, and a pre-recorded voice [which] tells users when a button should be bopped, a crank should twisted and a knob should be pulled. This goes on increasingly fast until the player screws up,” reports The Guardian.

Could the Bop It plan actually work? The experiment just started, so its effectiveness remains to be proven, but Uber’s chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, is optimistic: “An intoxicated rider who is engaged in something interesting is less likely to be irritable and aiming aggression at the driver,” The Guardian reports.

We fear drivers may be terminally haunted by commands to “twist it, pull it, bop it,” but if the toy curbs aggressive behavior, the annoyance might be a small price to pay.