National News

Uber, Lyft drivers accused of violent crimes

Posted May 16, 2018 4:02 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- He was supposed to drive a 16-year-old girl to her suburban Atlanta home. But instead, the 58-year-old man sexually assaulted the teen, according to police, and dropped her off partially dressed at an apartment complex.

Abdoulie Jagne of College Park, Georgia, had worked as an Uber driver for several weeks when he was arrested in December and charged with rape.

A recent CNN investigation found at least 103 cases involving Uber drivers sexually assaulting or abusing customers across the country in the past four years. Drivers for Uber's biggest competition, Lyft, were accused in 18 assaults, according to the study, which found that most of the assaults happened near major cities.

According to reports compiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, eight assaults involving ride-share services have happened in metro Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. But with so many different police jurisdictions throughout metro Atlanta -- and the possibility that some crimes were never reported -- that number could be higher.

"Every day, our technology puts millions of people together in cars in cities around the world," Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote on the company's website. "Helping keep people safe is a huge responsibility, and one we do not take lightly. That's why as CEO, I'm committed to putting safety at the core of everything we do."

But in Georgia, drivers for Uber and Lyft have been accused of several violent crimes, including a homicide and physical and sexual assaults. Sometimes, the crimes involve people posing as ride-share drivers, making it more difficult to find the suspect.

"These stories are horrific and our hearts go out to the victims," an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "We worked with CNN to understand their findings and determined that Uber did 2.4 billion trips in the U.S. in that same period. But even one incident on our platform is too many, which is why safety is Uber's top priority for 2018 and beyond."

Uber was founded in 2009 in San Francisco and quickly set off a ride-sharing frenzy that has since expanded to international cities. Some 15 million trips are completed each day, according to the Uber company website. From a smartphone, those needing a ride can find a driver with a few quick button pushes on an online application.

"Ubering" has become the preferred method of transportation for everyone from college-age students to adults not wanting to get behind the wheel.

Both Uber and Lyft require background checks for potential drivers. For Uber, some drivers transport customers and may also deliver food orders for Uber Eats, but not all drivers do both. All Uber drivers and Uber Eats delivery drivers must undergo both a motor vehicle and criminal background check before being hired, Uber spokeswoman Jodi Page said, and Uber plans to re-run those checks ever year.

Background checks are not typically required for those delivering food, such as pizza delivery drivers, but Uber does them as a proactive step, Page said.

Lyft did not respond to a request for information regarding crimes allegedly committed by its drivers. The company's website lists arrest histories that could prevent someone from being hired as driver, including a violent crime, sexual offenses, felonies, drug-related offenses or theft or property damage.

"Safety is our top priority and it is our goal to make every ride safe, comfortable, and reliable. Since the beginning, we have worked hard to design policies and features that protect our community," Lyft CEO Logan Green states on the company's website. "People say they use Lyft because they feel safe with our drivers, which is a product of this commitment."

With the growing popularity of Uber and Lyft, many states, including Georgia, have created laws to govern the industry and keep customers safe. Georgia law requires that ride-share drivers meet the same standards that apply to other transportation providers, such as taxis and limousine companies. Under state law, drivers must be at least 18, have liability insurance and complete an extensive driving history report. And while the majority of trips are completed safely, critics say more should be done to regulate the driving companies.

The Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) highlights the risk of Uber and Lyft through its awareness campaign titled "Who's Driving You?"

The TLPA maintains an ongoing list of incidents involving Uber and Lyft drivers and has tallied 49 deaths, 93 alleged assaults, 367 alleged sexual assaults and 16 kidnappings since 2014.

"We have every reason to believe that this is the tip of the iceberg," John Boit, spokesman for TLPA, said. "These are just the ones that we know about and have been made public."

Uber's quick-hire process for drivers makes it impossible for the company to properly screen employees before they're allowed to pick up customers, Boit said.

"They're willing to sacrifice the safety of passengers rather than do the right thing, slow their process down, properly vet their drivers through fingerprinting and give their drivers proper training," he said.

In February, an Atlanta driver for Uber Eats -- an online food delivery service operated by Uber -- was charged with murder after allegedly killing a man outside a Buckhead condo, according to police.

Robert Bivines had been an Uber Eats driver for a week when Atlanta police say he shot and killed 30-year-old Ryan Thornton. Bivines, 36, was charged with murder and aggravated assault, though his attorney has claimed he acted in self-defense.

Page told the AJC that several new safety features will be rolled out in the coming months.

"We're really committed to putting safety at the center of everything we do," Page said.

Customers who request a ride through the app are provided the driver's name, vehicle make and tag number.

"It's a way to verify that you're getting into the right car and with the right driver," Page said.

When traveling alone, riders should let others know where they are and can share their trip information from the app, she said. In the coming months, the Uber app will be updated to include a "safety center" and a panic button with quick access to 911. The app will also provide law enforcement a real-time location and the driver's tag number.

But those efforts likely won't be enough, according to Boit.

"Until they fingerprint their drivers, they will never be considered serious about passenger safety," he said.

Alexis Stevens writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: astevens(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service