The Safety of Taxi and Rideshare Drivers – Part 1: Heightened Concerns

This is the first part of a 2-part post.  Part 1 will highlight the heightened safety concerns that come along with being a taxi driver and examine anecdotal evidence raising similar concerns for workers who drive for ridesharing companies.  Part 2 will examine the steps that OSHA has taken to protect drivers in the taxi context and discuss whether and to what extent such measures would be helpful in increasing driver safety in the ridesharing context.

Relatively speaking, earning a living as a taxi driver is a dangerous endeavor – the homicide rate for cab drivers is about 30 times higher than the national homicide average for all workers.  In fact, according to Bloomberg, taxi driving is the occupation with the largest number of deaths due to violence, higher than both police officers and security guards.  Between the years of 1994 and 2013, an average of 34 cab drivers were murdered on the job every year.  From 1998 to 2007, the homicide rate for drivers ranged from 9 to 19 deaths per 100,000 workers, putting it at 21 to 33 times that of the national average (0.5 deaths/100k).

Yet still, as of January 2015, there were 239,900 people working as taxi drivers nationwide.  In New York City, where there are about 42,000 taxi drivers, 180 drivers have been killed since 1990.  To put that number into perspective, that averages out to more than 2 NYC drivers murdered per month, every month, since 1990.  That is jarring.

The aforementioned statistics alone illustrate the perilous nature of driving a cab.  Yet those numbers don’t even account for the thousands of other crimes that are committed against taxi drivers annually – battery, assault, robbery, carjacking, and threats of violence.  Although national statistics are elusive, a snapshot of such crimes in Chicago illuminates the seriousness of the problem.

In a 2008 survey conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, 58.7% of Chicago cab drivers said that they had been “threatened, attacked, and subjected to hostile racial comments.”  The most common weapons used against drivers in such attacks were (1) guns and (2) knives.  More recent evidence suggests that not much has changed.  In just a 10-month time frame (January – October 2014), Chicago saw nearly 300 reports of crimes in cabs (about a crime a day).  And, presumably, even more than that occurred since the 2008 survey revealed that roughly half of the drivers who had been attacked had not reported the incident to the police.  Thus, although they thankfully fall short of murder, these common crimes – battery, assault, robbery, theft, and violent threats – are very real concerns for drivers.

Because ridesharing has come onto the scene relatively recently, there isn’t yet comprehensive data on the injuries, crimes, or deaths experienced by those working for Uber, Lyft, etc.  However, a crowded timeline of anecdotal evidence gives us good reason to believe that similar safety concerns are implicated.

Just this February in New Orleans, an Uber driver was robbed and carjacked at gun point.  After an SUV pulled out to block the driver’s car at an intersection, a masked man with a gun told the driver to get out of the car while a second man took her phone and keys.  During the same month in Virginia, an Uber driver who asked passengers to refrain from drinking in the vehicle was punched and then struck in the head with a glass bottle.  The passengers finally scattered after shattering one of his car windows.

In January, an Uber driver in Miami was attacked by an intoxicated woman because he told her that she wasn’t the passenger he was assigned to.  The angry would-be passenger swung at him, kneed him in the groin, and threw several of his belongings out of the car.

A similar incident occurred in Boston in December 2015 after an Uber driver requested that an argumentative passenger exit his vehicle.  And in November 2015, four passengers in Connecticut assaulted their driver with a stun gun and stole his iPhone.

Edward Caban, an Uber driver in California, was the victim of a violent assault in October 2015.  In response to Caban’s request that his passenger exit the vehicle because he was too intoxicated, the (32-year-old male) passenger began punching Caban and attempting to bash his head through the window.  He only ceased after Caban employed pepper spray.

In June 2015, three passengers in Ottawa, Canada started becoming aggressive with the Uber driver that picked them up from a nightclub.  The driver jumped out of the car and tried to flee, but the passengers “chased him down, dragged him, and beat him unconscious.”  He was hospitalized for several days.  The same month, several teenage passengers attacked an Uber driver in Brooklyn, slapping him in the face repeatedly and ultimately putting him in a chokehold.

In January 2015, Uber driver Gilbert Wilburn was brutally beaten by two passengers who refused to pay their $6 fare.  They left him blacked out with several abrasions and a jaw injury.

In December 2014, four men in Brooklyn carjacked an Uber vehicle at gunpoint.

In November 2014, Abdo Ghazi was driving for Uber when he picked up three passengers via one user’s request on the app.  After dropping two of them off at their destination, he continued on with just the third.  Without warning, the passenger jumped in the front seat, punched Ghazi, and then repeatedly stabbed Ghazi in the face with a knife before fleeing the car.

An August 2014 report referenced a recent “spate of attacks” on Uber drivers in Los Angeles, most of which involved guns and resulted in stolen credit cards and phones.  In May 2014, a Lyft driver in Seattle was punched in the face after requesting that a passenger stop smoking in his vehicle.  The driver suffered a broken nose.

The stories go on and on.  With attacks occurring at this frequency, several drivers have understandably expressed fear and unease about their safety.  In the wake of these incidents, drivers in Des Moines lamented Uber’s failure to provide any kind of safety training or guidelines for dealing with unruly passengers.  Caban, the driver who was assaulted in California, echoed the same complaint, adding that “they are impossible to get a hold of to talk to about these situations.”  In fact, in the months before he was attacked, Caban had experienced several other situations that made him uncomfortable.  But because “it’s every driver for themselves,” he stopped driving late at night and took it upon himself to purchase and install a dashboard camera in his car in order to feel more at ease.

Another driver in New Orleans, while acknowledging that rogue passengers make him uneasy, said that it’s really Uber that leaves the drivers feeling at risk.  By his account, the only recourse drivers have to deal with irate or threatening passengers is sending an e-mail.  But when violence is involved, an e-mail isn’t enough.

Furthermore, drivers claim that the risk is exacerbated by the pressure on drivers not to refuse rides or put passengers out since the riders could jeopardize the driver’s job by submitting negative ratings or reports (this account is corroborated by an ex-Lyft driver, who quit when the company infringed on her ability to cancel rides due to personal safety concerns).

Although the ridesharing industry hasn’t been around long enough to garner extensive statistics on driver safety, the frequency with which these concerning incidents have occurred and the unease expressed by many drivers raise serious safety concerns.  Part 2 of this piece will examine OSHA’s regulatory approach to taxi driver safety and discuss the merits of imposing similar measures to better protect the drivers that are fueling the success of companies like Uber and Lyft.

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