How to Stay Safe Using Lyft and Uber

  • Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Time, the New York Daily News and The Guardian, among other publications. His work has taken him from his Brooklyn home to a few war zones, from Baghdad, Iraq to the Detroit auto show.

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In August 2018, an Uber driver was convicted of rape after taking an intoxicated female passenger to a hotel, sexually assaulting her, and using her credit card to buy snacks at a nearby 7-Eleven. Two months later, a woman climbed into a car she thought was sent by Lyft and was then raped by the driver, who was not associated with the app. In the summer of 2018, an Uber passenger was killed when the hack in which he was riding was struck by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the highway.

Ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft may represent a significant shift in how people get around, but they’re far from perfect, and represent a risk to the unwary passenger. In early 2018, a CNN investigation found that more than 103 Uber drivers in the U.S. had been accused of sexually assaulting passengers in the prior four years, many of them intoxicated women. Another report from the University of Chicago found that as Uber and Lyft cars increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in urban areas, traffic fatalities in those places are on the rise.

Drivers face their own set of safety challenges as well. Although no one can predict when an intoxicated driver will strike, it pays to be on the lookout for erratic driving among other motorists, as well as erratic behavior from passengers. In 2016, a drunk Taco Bell executive brought such abuse into the national consciousness, beating his Uber driver, apparently unaware that the entire event was captured on video. Over the summer of 2018, a Lyft driver was shot in the head in Los Angeles during an argument with another rideshare driver. In fall 2018, an Auburn University student assaulted his Lyft driver.

This is not to say that a ride in an app-hailed car will likely lead to death or sexual assault. Nor does it mean that if you drive for Lyft or Uber, that you are likely to get beaten up. In fact, most rides go by without incident.

For their part, Uber and Lyft try to ensure driver and passenger safety by conducting criminal background and driving record checks on drivers, keeping tabs on vehicle safety inspections and liability insurance policies, maintaining zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies, and leaning on the 5-star rating system. And as a rider, you get rated for bad behavior. Jerks end up waiting a long time for someone to come and pick them up, and abusing a driver results in immediate loss of privileges, not to mention criminal charges.

Just ask Taco Bell man.

Because of the intimacy of a rideshare transaction, and the fact that, according to the federal government, thousands of motor vehicle fatalities are caused each year by drowsiness, distraction, drunk drivers, and unbuckled passengers, ride-hailing apps are placed in special territory as far as services go. Think about it: when you go to the cleaners, you don’t spend 30-45 minutes enclosed in a little metal box with the clerk. Whereas drivers bear the lion’s share of responsibility regarding safe driving and making sure their equipment is safe, ride-hailing app customers also have a responsibility to know how best to stay safe when they’re using these services.

Here are a few tips on how to stay safe while riding in an Uber or Lyft:

Double-check Your Ride

Black Dodge Journey on a Wet Street

When your Lyft or Uber arrives, you need to match the vehicle description, license plate, and driver to the profile shown on your app. (Pexels)

When a car pulls up the curb to pick you up, you need to make sure it is the right vehicle and driver. Be sure the app profile information matches the driver and vehicle claiming to be your ride. This reduces the chances of an impostor gaining access to what should be a closed loop.

Inspect the Equipment

Does your driver’s car look a little out-of-date or unsafe? If so, you have a right to request a newer car equipped with the latest safety equipment. Automobile crashworthiness requirements have become more stringent over the past few years, and active safety technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. That said, any car with worn tires, damaged safety belts, inoperable headlights or taillights, or a cracked windshield can pose a safety threat.

Look Before You Leap

You may have called the car with an app, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it. The same goes for drivers. Survey the scene. Does the driver or a ridesharing passenger seem agitated? Does anything feel “not right?” If the answer to either question is yes, contacting Lyft or Uber to explain the cancellation is easy enough.

Location is Everything

A black Chevrolet Suburban picks up a Lyft passenger
Uber and Lyft pre-screen drivers to weed out people with criminal backgrounds, they perform driving record checks, and they have strict drug and alcohol policies. (Lyft)

Make sure you’re being picked up and dropped off in places that are safe for both you and your driver. Standing around waiting in a high-crime area, or someplace where high-speed traffic is rushing by, is a bad idea. Uber says on its safety page to avoid spending time standing alone outside with your phone in your hand – a look that can make you seem like a target.

The same goes for the drop-off location. In 2017, an Uber driver was shot while dropping off a passenger in front of an apartment complex in South Charlotte, N.C.

Watch Your Drug and Alcohol Consumption

Uber and Lyft have zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies for their drivers, which perhaps makes them the ultimate designated driver platforms. But many of the reported assaults upon passengers occur when they enter a rideshare vehicle while heavily intoxicated or blacked out.

If you don’t know what’s going on around you, it’s impossible to tell if something isn’t right. At the very least, if you know you’re going to be past the point of self-control, don’t hop into a cab alone. Try to surround yourself with people who will look after your best interests.

Tell a Friend Where You’re Going

Both Lyft and Uber offer a “share status” function through their apps. You can tell people where you’re going, and share the name, photo, and license plate number of your driver. You can also share this information the old-fashioned way, by text message or telephone.

Don’t Share Personal Information

Uber and Lyft vet prospective drivers, but they don’t know everything about them, and the drivers recently convicted of sexual assault didn’t have criminal records. Feel free to chat if you’d like, but don’t share any personal information with your driver.

Drivers should keep their information close to the vest as well. The ride-hailing services know even less about their customers.

Ride in the Back Seat

Family Riding in Back Seat

Airbags alone don’t guarantee safety in a cab or rideshare. According to NHTSA, 48% of traffic fatalities involve unbuckled passengers. (Uber)

Lyft encourages passengers to sit up front if it makes them comfortable, but Uber soberly advises riders to sit in the back, where they can exit the vehicle on either side – depending upon which is safest – and give both driver and passenger more personal space.

Buckle Up

This one is a no-brainer. A lot of people assume that because they’re in a cab or rideshare, there’s no need to wear a seat belt. Nothing is farther from the truth. You’re riding in a motor vehicle, and motor vehicles are susceptible to crashes.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly half (48%) of the 37,461 people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2016 were not wearing a safety belt. Although most vehicles are equipped with airbags, seat belts protect passengers both from the force of an airbag and from potential ejection from the vehicle.

Be Respectful

No one expects to get into a fight with an Uber or Lyft driver, but everyone’s human and the best way to avoid provoking someone is to show respect. Be polite and respectful of the vehicle in which you’re riding, too. Remember that many Uber and Lyft drivers are using their personal vehicles as taxicabs. Their pay isn’t great, and cars are expensive to own and maintain.

The same goes for drivers, who should respect passengers by being polite and demonstrate regard for their personal space. Blasting the radio or having loud phone conversations can get under someone’s skin pretty quickly.

Go With Your Gut

Even when you’ve taken all of these precautions, the situation still might not feel right. If something seems off, follow your intuition. If you’re already in the car, ask to be let out. And if that doesn’t work, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Sometimes your gut instincts are wrong, but sometimes they’re not. Better to be safe than sorry.


About the Author

  • Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Time, the New York Daily News and The Guardian, among other publications. His work has taken him from his Brooklyn home to a few war zones, from Baghdad, Iraq to the Detroit auto show.

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