In the past few weeks, headlines from Los Angeles to Boston have warned of
drivers, and fake Uber drivers, that have been charged with sexual assaults, rapes and kidnapping. They are not the headlines any company wants.
is the leading ride-sharing app and it becomes more popular by the day. But is it becoming more dangerous?
"Keep in mind that we're doing millions of trips every single day. I would say that as we've gotten bigger, we've gotten better. We've introduced more and more safety features into the app," said Delon White, Uber Cleveland general manager.
For those of you who haven't used Uber, here's a quick explainer. Think taxi, but high-tech. Use the app on your phone to request a ride. An Uber driver, in their personal car, comes to pick you up. Using GPS, the app even shows the car as it's coming to get you. It's always been touted as safe because no money changes hands. The charge goes right through your credit card to Uber, not the driver that gave you a ride. Most of the time, it's cheaper than a traditional cab.
Uber has made several security changes since driving on the scene in 2009. For example, when you request an Uber, at the bottom of the screen on your phone it shows a picture of the driver, tells you the kind of car, and even gives you a license plate. All of that is great to identify you're getting into the right car. But what is Uber doing to make you feel safe about who's car you're getting into?
White says they use a thorough background check system for drivers that goes back seven years. They search county records in which the driver lives, federal records, sex offender registries, along with BMV records. But even White admits nothing can be 100 percent safe.
"The one thing that background checks can't do is they can't predict future behavior. So that's something that's the reality we live with," says White.
While there have been charges against Uber drivers attacking customers in cities, like Boston, Chicago and L.A., we checked with
and there have been no reports here.
One safety option Uber is testing in India is a panic button they call "SOS." This will allow passengers to call for help with a click on their phone. This option is not slated for the U.S. yet.
"I think Uber has big potential, but it also has big issues right now," says Patrick DeHaan, who works as a consumer advocate in the transportation industry in Chicago.
He warns that Uber has grown quickly with little to no oversight. Some cities and states question regulating Uber, like they do taxis, but the ride sharing company, in some cases, is resisting. DeHaan says that's the problem.
"Uber is a bunch of amateurs. These are not professional drivers that taxi cab drivers are," DeHaan explains.
"We're not a taxi service. What we do is we're connecting riders with drivers," counters White.
There is a reason that last statement it so important. Uber does not want to be seen as a taxi service because that would mean they would have to be regulated like cab companies. That would include pricing and a practice Uber calls "surge pricing." By walking the fine line of a ride-sharing service, they don't have to conform with a city's regulations for cab drivers, and that includes what you pay.
"That's the problem. Is with Uber's pricing, sometimes the price can be four, five, ten times the normal fare," complains DeHaan.
At peak times, like on weekend nights, Uber raises the rates higher and higher to encourage more drivers to come online to make more money. Riders are informed upfront of surge pricing, and do have to click to agree to pay more than the standard rate.
From his personal experience,
shared two recent receipts. On New Year's Eve, he used Uber to get from Lakewood to downtown and back. The ride from Lakewood to Cleveland early in the evening cost $11.84. That same ride home after midnight with the agreement to surge pricing was $51.34 -- more than four times the normal rate.
"Surge pricing is dynamic pricing and it's something -- it's a model that's used in a lot of industries. If you think about when you buy an airline ticket, when you book a hotel," White explains.
That's not how DeHaan sees it.
"While it does, perhaps, entice more drivers, it can also be essentially gouging -- legal at this point -- gouging customers," says DeHaan.
Uber disagrees. Surge, not gouge, they say. Other than refusing to use the service, there's nothing you can do about it and nothing the city can do either, because Uber is not recognized as a taxi service. As Uber explains it, they are simply connecting riders with drivers.