Rachael Maier knew there was a problem when her Uber driver wouldn’t stop staring at her.
On her way to an apartment showing in San Francisco, the 35-year-old media executive said she noticed him turn to look at her at every stop sign. As the ride progressed, he started asking if she had a boyfriend and telling her she was beautiful. Maier said she dodged his advances until she made it to her destination and rushed inside, hoping that would be the end of it.
But when she left the showing 30 minutes later, Maier saw her driver in the same spot where he had dropped her off. He beckoned her over and offered her a free ride, telling her he had to see her again. When she tried to walk away, she said, he started following her down the street. She eventually broke into a sprint, running to the nearest coffee shop and hiding in the back until she could call a Lyft.
Terrified, Maier submitted a report to Uber as soon as she got home, writing that she’d “never felt so weirded out by a driver,” according to emails she provided to The Daily Beast. Uber offered to give her a refund and told her they would be re-evaluating this driver’s access to the platform. That was almost two years ago, and it was the last she heard from the company.
“I don’t think they really care,” Maier told The Daily Beast. “I think they try to minimize things like this to keep you coming back, and maybe they think a $5 credit is enough… They clearly did not feel this had the same level of urgency or danger that I thought it did.”
No one knows exactly how many people are assaulted or harassed in rideshares. Police departments don’t categorize these violations by location, and rideshare companies are notoriously bad at reporting them. Both Uber and Lyft said they made major changes to their safety procedures last year, following a spate of stories on drivers kidnapping, killing and assaulting their passengers. But the number of women harassed—and what exactly happens to the drivers who harass them—remains largely a mystery.
The issue flooded back into the spotlight last week after a viral Twitter thread from actress and comedian Anna Gillcrist. The Los Angeles performer described how her driver had pestered her for personal information—including her relationship status—on the way back from a bachelor party last weekend. When the driver slowed down outside her house to ask if her boyfriend was home, Gillcrist said, she was forced to pry open the lock and run out of the car. Lyft responded by offering a $5 credit toward her ride.
“I want more than a stupid $5 credit,” Gillcrist wrote in a tweet that garnered more than 16,000 likes. “Your driver put me in a scenario in which I thought I might be kidnapped, raped, or even killed. That pathetic attempt to mask a serious issue is insulting to me and women everywhere who have to deal with this shit on a regular basis.”
Shortly after her posts went viral, a Lyft representative reached out to Gillcrist and informed her that the driver had been terminated. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Lyft called the behavior “deeply concerning.”
“Safety is Lyft’s top priority and there is no place for harassment of any sort in our community,” the company said. “As soon as we were made aware of this incident, we deactivated the driver from the Lyft platform. We have also reached out to the rider to offer our support.”
But that isn’t the typical experience for riders with smaller social media followings. Stanford University student Emily Lake told The Daily Beast she tried to ask Lyft about its sexual harassment policy two years ago, after two different drivers asked for her phone number in the span of one week. She felt uncomfortable with the advances but didn’t know how to refuse while trapped in a stranger's car, she said—especially after the second driver thrust his phone into her hand and badgered her into adding him on LinkedIn.
Lake emailed Lyft after the second interaction, asking explicitly for the company’s policy on sexual harassment. After several email exchanges, a Lyft representative apologized to Lake for what it called her “less than stellar experiences.” The representative told her she had “followed up and taken the necessary actions with the two individual drivers,” but did not provide any information about the sexual harassment policy.
“They used a few buzz words. They said ‘We’re hearing you,’ and it didn’t feel at the time at all like they actually cared,” Lake said. “ I would still like an answer to what training or what explicit information is given to new drivers who sign up.”
Searching for “sexual harassment” on the Uber help page turns up an anti-discrimination policy and, oddly, a policy on service animals. The community guidelines page urges users to “respect each other” and “give riders and drivers some personal space.” Lyft’s website provides a similar non-discrimination policy and tells drivers not to force conversation or ask riders for their contact information. There is no publicly available information on either website about how sexual harassment claims are handled.
In response to an email from The Daily Beast, a Lyft spokesperson said riders can report safety concerns to its Critical Response Line at any time. Drivers found to be in violation of company policies may receive a warning, temporary deactivation of their account, or a permanent ban from the platform. An Uber spokesperson outlined similar procedures. Both companies said they temporarily suspend accounts while investigating complaints. Neither responded to specific questions about what the investigation process looks like, or if customers are informed of the outcome.
Curious, Maier looked up her driver’s profile on her own. It was still active, with a 4.94-star rating.
“Where is the transparency?” Maier asked incredulously. “They’ll tell you how many late-night trips [a driver] has taken or if he has a clean car, but they won’t tell you how many people felt creeped out by him.”
She added, “You’re putting your safety in someone else’s hands and you don't have the data to make that assessment.”
Rick Rossein, an employment law professor at the City University of New York, said Uber and Lyft may avoid telling riders about the outcome of these investigations for fear of being sued. If a customer found out that their driver was fired for sexual harassment and shared that information, he said, the company could be liable for damaging the driver’s reputation.
But rideshare drivers say the lack of transparency goes both ways. One driver, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told The Daily Beast she regularly endured male riders offering to her pay for sex during her four years on the job. In one instance, she said a man stayed in her car even after they reached his destination, motioning toward his genitals and telling her what she would “miss out on” if she didn’t go home with him. The driver said she reported every such interaction on the Uber app, but never received any follow-up from the company.
Even drivers who are accused of sexual harassment say they are kept in the dark. Drivers accused of a variety of violations told the Daily Beast that Uber had temporarily disabled their accounts over a single customer complaint, without telling them who the customer was or when the incident occurred. The drivers said they were given the opportunity to send an email contesting the allegation, but that Uber never called them for their version of events or collected evidence.
“They give you the opportunity to send an email saying ‘I didn’t do this,’ but they don’t talk to you,” said Jason Reed, a driver in Las Vegas who was temporarily deactivated for allegedly driving while intoxicated. He was reinstated less than a day later.
“They just deactivate you for however long it takes the to get through whatever process they have,” he added. “But honestly I don't know what they do in those 28 hours, because they didn’t talk to me.”
Rideshare Drivers United—one of several groups that have formed to represent rideshare drivers in recent years—lists “transparency” as one of its top demands for companies like Uber and Lyft. Their four-pronged “Drivers Bill of Rights” asks specifically for a “transparent, speedy, independent de-activation appeals process, with all discipline held to ‘just cause’ standard.” Drivers from the Alliance for Independent Workers are also organizing for a more transparent investigation process.
Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with RDU, said this is to protect both drivers and riders.
“If a driver's out there messing with passengers, that's not good for any of us because we're all seen as suspect,” she said. “And if there's not really reliable ways to follow up on those things, then we're all hurting.”
“If you're going to be a rideshare company, safety has to be a concern—and not just on paper,” she added. “There has to be a real way to follow up on those things.”
Uber has recently made steps to better report sexual harassment and assault on its platform, releasing a “taxonomy” of sexual offenses in partnership with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to help track the problem. They plan to release the data this year. Both Uber and Lyft agreed last year to stop forcing riders and drivers to settle sexual harassment claims via forced arbitration, rather than in open court.
But the companies so far have failed to set up a process of information-sharing within the industry to keep bad drivers from simply switching to another platform. Reed said he counsels his fellow drivers to set up accounts with Uber, Lyft, Postmates and other services to insure a “backup” source of income if they are deactivated from one service. Katie Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University who is studying Uber’s emergence in Washington, D.C., said she’d heard of people simply driving under a friend or family member’s profile while their account was deactivated.
“I hope that increasingly these stories contribute to some kind of public reckoning to say, ‘Wait a second, we should not trust these companies,’” Wells said. “They may be good at making an app, but are they good at making decisions about public safety? I don't know.”