The Safety of Taxi and Rideshare Drivers – Part 2: OSHA's Response

Published June 2nd, 2016 -  - 06.02.165


This is the second part of a 2-post examination of driver safety in both the taxi and ridesharing spheres.  Part 1, which contains an extensive list of unsettling incidents that have threatened the safety of ridesharing drivers, makes it pretty clear that increasing driver safety is (or should be) a pressing concern.  This post will detail the regulatory measures that have been taken to protect taxi drivers and discuss whether similar protections would be feasible and/or beneficial in the ridesharing context. 

In the taxi cab context, OSHA has responded to these same kinds of dangers by identifying risk factors and making various recommendations.  The risk factors identified include:

  • Working with cash;
  • Working alone and in isolated areas;
  • Working at night and in poorly lit settings;
  • Working in high crime areas; and
  • Interacting with people who are under the influence of alcohol.

To help employers reduce these risks, OSHA has suggested several action steps.  Although the recommendations are “advisory in nature,” OSHA can issue citations for violations of standards, regulations, and the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, which requires employers to furnish employees with a place of employment free from recognized hazards causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.

This raises the question of whether Uber, Lfyt, and other ridesharing companies should be subject to similar oversight from OSHA.

On its website, Uber promises that it is committed to keeping both riders and drivers safe and claims that its technology enables Uber to focus on rider/driver safety before, during, and after every trip.  A small section then describes the company’s strategy for driver safety: cashless transactions, driver feedback, and no random pick-ups (meaning all requests go through the app).

Outside of these uniform protections, the company has been experimenting with a couple of novel ideas to help drivers deal with one of the main risks faced by drivers – intoxicated passengers.  Last month, the Guardian reported that Uber is instructing drivers in Charlotte, North Carolina to leave Bop It toys in their backseats, the idea being that the children’s game will keep drunken riders too entertained to bother the drivers.  And in Seattle, Uber has had some drivers to install passenger-facing mirrors in the backseat since “studies have suggested people are more likely to self-moderate their behavior if they see their reflection, the company says.”

Some might say the company’s safety strategy seems dangerously lacking.  Interviews with drivers suggest that several of them share the sentiment (see part 1).  It’s undoubtedly a plus that the app’s payment platform eliminates the risks associated with handling large amounts of cash.  However, the remaining four risk factors apply equally to Uber/Lyft drivers, and when a driver finds himself in urgent danger, it’s pretty clear that the ability to give the passenger a poor rating at a later time, much less the presence of a Bop It toy, is not going to go very far in providing drivers with adequate protection or a meaningful opportunity to obtain help.

Absent other direction from the company regarding alternative safety solutions, a substantial number of drivers have sought greater security by arming themselves with non-lethal weapons, such as pepper spray.  The company’s stance on such measures is unclear, at least from this e-mail exchange with an inquiring driver:

uber1

Harry Campbell, the inquiring driver (above), described this e-mail as a “microcosm of the training and support that Uber drivers get on the job.  Their questions are often met with frustrating responses and Uber rarely provides any sort of real guidance or help.”

The picture that emerges from all of this is a strong feeling on the part of employees that the company is neither providing necessary training to employees nor proposing sufficiently effective safeguards on its own.  If that’s the case, then the taxi industry — similar to the ride sharing industry in risk and function, yet conveniently already subject to government safety regulations – seems naturally instructive.

So, would Uber and other drivers also benefit from receiving some of the same protections provided to taxi drivers under OSHA’s watch?

On various occasions (2000, 2010), OSHA recommended that employers take physical and procedural precautions.

Suggested physical controls include:

  • Barriers between drivers and passengers;
  • Security cameras to record activities within the vehicle;
  • Radios to communicate in case of emergency (e.g.  “open mike switch”);
  • Silent alarms that enable drivers to request help;
  • Vehicle tracking devices to enable distressed drivers to be located;
  • Improved lighting inside the vehicle; and
  • First aid kits for use in emergencies

Uber and like companies have the tracking/GPS device covered.  And because these companies don’t provide their drivers with vehicles, the provision of costly physical barriers like bullet-proof glass seems unlikely.  Similarly, requiring employers to improve the degree of lighting in the vehicle seems like a stretch in this context.

Security cameras, however, could feasibly be distributed to drivers wishing to place them in their own vehicles.  In the taxi context, video cameras are helpful both in discouraging violent behavior and identifying passengers in the event that an assault does occur.  Though both benefits seem applicable to the ride sharing context, the main benefit would be disincentivizing violent behavior.  There is convincing evidence (here, here, and here) that dash cameras serve as powerful deterrents of both assaults and murders of drivers.

As for other benefits, it’s probably true that ridesharing companies have an inherent leg up on taxi companies in identifying passengers retroactively since riders have created a profile using personal and financial information.  Still, one can imagine a camera becoming useful for identification purposes in certain circumstances, some of which have already occurred (multiple passengers using one account, violence from a wannabe passenger, passenger using a fake/fraudulent account).  And, in any case, video evidence in the aftermath of an assault would undoubtedly aid a wronged driver who wished to seek recourse or vindication through the legal system, whether civil or criminal.

Likewise, the virtues of having both a radio communication mechanism as well as some kind of silent alarm that enables a driver to discreetly request help seem wholly transferable to the ridesharing context.  In fact, one Uber driver specifically complained about the absence of an emergency channel of communication, emphasizing that taxi drivers’ ability to be in constant communication with others via radio provides them with an extra layer of protection that Uber drivers don’t have.

Companies could provide drivers with these capacities in a number of ways.

For instance, they could:

  • Create and monitor an Uber communication network and distribute handheld mechanisms to all drivers (think walkie talkies);
  • Equip the driver’s vehicle or iPhone platform with an alert button that sends a signal to headquarters and/or activates instant communication with a central dispatch (to avoid situations like this);
  • Fund the installation of special external lights on drivers’ vehicles that they could use to signal to passing police that they’re in distress (like the “bandit lights” used by taxi companies).

OSHA’s suggested “procedural” controls include promoting the use of credit cards to reduce the amount of cash drivers have in hand, establishing police protocols, and providing safety training to drivers.  While the app resolves the cash in hand problem, we have little doubt that the other two recommendations have great merit – these drivers feel undertrained and are looking to Uber for guidance.

In sum, while some of OSHA’s suggestions are moot or impractical under the Uber model, other controls — dash cameras, silent alarms, communication capacity, clear protocals, and safety training — would be helpful in increasing the safety of taxi and Uber drivers alike.  Are Uber and Lyft required to take such measures?  If their drivers are actually employees, yes.  But even if the drivers remain independent contractors, these companies should nonetheless be guided by the OSHA recommendations and implement appropriate steps to prepare and protect drivers.

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