By Jasmine Gearie
Written November 2015
The taxi industry has said, “It’s no safer than hitchhiking”. And it could be true; women across Australian cities are receiving lifts home from strangers.
So what’s the appeal of Uber? For a small fee, users request a ride through the app on their smartphone, which uses your GPS to detect your location and connect you with the nearest available driver.
What’s more, once you request a ride, you can track your driver’s location on the map. No more ballpark figures – “they’ll be there in 10 to 30 minutes” – from the taxi company. Your Uber driver is arriving right… about… now.
When you download the app, you’ll be asked to enter your credit card details, so your fare will automatically be charged to your account upon arrival at your destination, no need for cash.
Still not sure if you’ll have enough? The app allows you to view rates for your city, or by entering your pick up and drop off locations, you can get a fare estimate for your trip.
If you live in one of Australia’s major cities, Uber has already transformed how you get around, and if you don’t, chances are it will within the next few years.
Melbourne resident Vanessa Kennedy, 22, has recently begun to catch a ride home with Uber on the weekends, rather than wait it out at the taxi rank.
“For the digital age we live in, we want things that are readily accessible at our fingertips and that cost less,” she said.
Technology has made us gluttons for instant gratification, and Uber is capitalising on that need in a way that the taxi industry never saw coming.
Uber has been touted as better than taxis for the consumer, but is it actually safer for the consumer?
Kennedy isn’t a convert yet. “As children you’re taught that you can trust people that are in uniform, from bus drivers to pilots. I think the concept of Uber turns that upside down because you are virtually getting into a strangers car – things you’re taught not to do as children and I find that kind of ironic,” she said.
She says she’s still not completely comfortable catching an Uber over a taxi. “Personally I’d never travel in an Uber alone, only when with friends… safety in numbers never rung so true.”
Since its arrival to the Australian market in November 2012, Uber has left a trail of controversy in its wake.
The company’s original service, UberBlack, is a high-end, luxury vehicle hire car service, and for a little price mark up, passengers can expect to be picked up by a certified chauffeur, often dressed sharply and well mannered.
Much of the controversy clouding Uber however is concerned with UberX, the low-cost option of the ride-on-demand car service that connects passengers with private drivers who use their own cars. Aside from the fact that the service is technically unlicensed and unregulated in every Australian state and territory bar the ACT, don’t expect too much glamour with UberX. The cars can be up to nine years old, and basically anybody can become a driver, provided they undergo a criminal background check, and pass the standard checks of having a full license and a clean driving record.
If you have had more than two minor offences in five years, you couldn’t drive for Uber. One major offence and you couldn’t drive at all.
UberX is for the people, by the people. One just has to hold out hope that as they step into the typical every day car that just pulled up, they are getting the typical every day person as a driver.
But that’s not always the case.
Last month an Uber driver was charged with the rape of a young female passenger in Vaucluse. NSW Police called the alleged attacker, “An opportunist man preying on a vulnerable woman”.
In July this year, a 51-year-old male Uber driver was charged with sexually assaulting a 20-year-old female passenger in Perth.
These incidents aren’t isolated, and similarly shocking reports have emerged across the globe from countries in which Uber operates.
While Uber has been subject to intense media scrutiny of late, the taxi industry is by no means exempt to such sex crimes, as stories of assault and harassment by traditional taxi drivers are nothing new.
Bryce Crocombe, 25, is the kind of driver you want to get. He started driving for UberX in Newcastle, before moving on to Sydney in April 2015, but stopped in October amid the NSW government’s crack down on ride sharing services, that saw UberX drivers faced with fines, deregistered vehicles and licence suspension.
Despite being an UberX driver, Crocombe says he always kept his car spotless inside and out, because it helped to make his riders more comfortable.
“I would always have water and mints, and an extra phone charger in the car, because it was those little things that helped solidify Uber as a genuinely nice, safe and comfortable service,” he said.
Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group Choice recently trialed UberX and taxi services to find out which performs best on price and reliability, as well as a comparison of their safety mechanisms.
“It’s not possible to comparatively test the safety of these services; nor could we find figures that pointed to either one being dramatically better or worse,” Choice reported.
This is because the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research told Choice that police haven’t yet started reporting any statistics on assaults in Uber cars.
As for the NSW Taxi Council’s claim that ride-sharing services such as Uber are “no safer than hitchhiking”, Choice Director of Campaigns and Communications, Matt Levey says, “There is no basis for the outrageous claim that using an Uber poses the same level of risk as hitchhiking”.
“Trips using services like Uber are tracked and traceable, unlike hitchhiking,” Mr. Levey said.
“To end the scare campaign we have commenced an investigation that will compare the service offerings of ride-sharing businesses with the traditional taxi industry.”
When I ask Crocombe about the NSW Taxi Council’s advertisement that likened Uber to hitchhiking, his response is immediate. “The taxi industry’s smear campaign against Uber is so stupid, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black!”
Both Uber and taxi services have a range of different systems in place to help ensure the safety of their passengers, and at the end of the day, it all unfortunately comes down to what mechanisms you’re comfortable with.
All taxis are fitted with a tamper-proof security camera and hardwired GPS locators. Taxi drivers also have to have a full license and undergo ongoing criminal history checks. The process isreally not much more than is required of Uber drivers – the checks are just government-backed. Uber is just waiting for the state governments to catch up.
Uber also uses GPS tracking, with your trip being tracked on your smartphone and the driver’s. You can also choose to share your estimated time of arrival with your family or friends so they can keep track of your ride.
Some argue however that GPS tracking from smartphones is a vulnerable technology given that a phone can be discarded or simply switched off, which is cause for concern for those of us riding alone.
Crocombe assures that the system is safe for the consumer, “Once the trip begins, a GPS navigation shows up on my phone, and it shows the exact route I need to take, and if you deviate from the path, it shows straight away,” he said.
“The same screen shows up on the riders phone if they have the app open, so straight away there is more transparency and no chance that a rider can be taken on a wild goose chase through back streets and who knows where on the way to their destination,” Crocombe said.
One particular point of difference between the two transport services is Uber’s driver rating system. After the trip, passengers can anonymously rate drivers on a scale from one to five. If a driver’s average rating falls below four and a half out of five, Uber will review their feedback and get in touch with them.
In addition to the feedback system, once a driver accepts a trip request, a photo of the driver and their rating appears on the passenger’s app screen, as well as the car model, colour and number plate. At this point, if the rider feels uncomfortable, they can cancel the trip free of charge. It’s not exactly similar to hitchhiking.
Crocombe’s first experience with Uber was as a passenger while travelling in the USA over Christmas last year. He was adamant that he wouldn’t get into a taxi again after the experience. A few months after returning to Australia he became an Uber driver himself to earn some extra cash over the weekends, but when he found the job was a little more lucrative than expected, he quit his job and decided to drive full time.
“I lost track of how many people I picked up that swore they would never go in another taxi again after using Uber, and I was the same,” he says, “I especially had several female customers comment on the fact that they felt so much safer in an Uber than a taxi.”
Despite the number of reported sexual assaults at the hands of their drivers, and their ongoing, well-publicised battle against the taxi industry and government regulators around the world, Uber doesn’t seem to have taken a fatal hit.
For now, with the company just celebrating its 10 millionth UberX passenger ride, it appears that customers are willing to accept the risk for the reward – convenience and affordability.
Choice’s user trial found that UberX was cheaperthan a taxi around nine times out of 10, and taxis were also 40 per cent more expensive than UberX on average.
Crocombe says it’s not just the price point that is the reason for Uber’s success – it’s the experience.
“It’s not like the taxi industry sucks and Uber came along and it was only a little better so people were happy to roll with it and see how it goes,” he says, “Uber from day one has tried to make each interaction with riders as comfortable and as nice as being in your own private car.”
A slew of disturbing media reports have emerged recently of Uber drivers being assaulted by their passengers, which begs the question, who is really more at risk in the Uber arrangement? You’re in the car with a stranger, no matter if you’re driving the car or in the back seat.
Crocombesays he never felt unsafe during his time behind the wheel, although he concedes to a few questionable pick-ups. “There were occasions were you definitely had to be a little more self-aware because I could have been parked in a dark alley waiting for a passenger or a street with inadequate lighting,” he says, “but it would have been the same feeling whether you were in a car driving Uber or just walking down that street.”
It seems that women’s lingering sense of unease towards getting into cars with strangerscarries over to being the driver as well. Forbes reports that only 14 per cent of U.S. Uber drivers are women – a little higher than the 12.7 per cent of U.S. taxi drivers and chauffeurs that are women.
While Uber keeps drivers safer by getting rid of the cash exchange, the job still requires driving alone and picking up strangers, often at night. Forbes conducted interviews with eight female on-demand drivers, reporting that, “They usually feel safe but sometimes have doubts after troubling experiences and holes in safety policies. They also said the job was almost always perceived to be less safe than they feel it is, which turns away potential drivers.”
We have been socially conditioned to feel unsafe in a stranger’s car, but Choice has declared Uber as safe for the consumer. So what’s it going to be?