Black cab drivers, sexual assault — and why you should always read the data

Since Transport for London’s decision not to renew Uber’s license yesterday, everyone has shared their hot take.

So here’s mine: if Uber isn’t playing by the rules, the company should get its shit together and comply with the regulator. There can be no exceptions when an operator is responsible for the safety of millions of passengers.

I also think that if you want to exploit a situation like this, either because it aligns with your world view or potentially improves your political standing, then you should present the facts as they are, in full.

Where this started is with a tweet by Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North:

In their statement on the decision, TfL’s language is quite different:

TfL considers that Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.
These include… its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.

TfL isn’t saying Uber doesn’t handle complaints seriously, nor does it make any reference to rape and sexual assault. This is Streeting’s language, not theirs.

Streeting is a big fan of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) and wasted no time exploiting TfL’s decision by immediately posing for photos with them:

You’ll note the poster behind Streeting and the LTDA - it’s one in a series that LTDA promotes in London on an ongoing basis:

The claims it makes are horrifying — last year there were 32 allegations of rape and sexual assault made against Uber drivers. It’s the same claim made by Streeting in a cross-party letter from MPs to TfL less than two weeks before TfL’s ruling:

This claim has been quoted time and time again, before and since the ruling, on radio phone-ins, social media and by the media in its analysis of the ruling.

Where did the claim originate? The source is a Freedom of Information request made to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) in February 2016.

The first thing you should know about the claim is that it’s at least 18 months old.

The request, and subsequent reply concerns information about alleged sexual assaults between February 2015 and February 2016. So the claims made about Uber’s current service are based on data stretching back over two and a half years ago. They certainly don’t refer to “last year” as LTDA falsely claim.

The point that is arguably more concerning, is this:

For the time period requested 154 allegations of Rape or Sexual Assault 
were made to the MPS in which the suspect was alleged to have been a taxi 
driver.
Of those reports 32 allegations were reported in which it was stated that 
the suspect was an Uber driver.

In other words, there were 122 allegations of rape or sexual assault that Uber were categorically not responsible for.

So who was?

Please note that the term taxi driver could apply to drivers of black 
cabs, minicabs (legally booked or illegally picked up in the street) 
including the many-seated versions, rickshaws and chauffeur driven cars, 
essentially most sorts of private hire vehicles.

In other words, for every allegation against an Uber driver, there were 4 more carried out by other drivers. Or, if you wanted to put it on a public billboard and use the same language as LTDA:

Black cab drivers may be linked to one sex attack in London every 3 days.

In fact, black cab drivers could have been responsible for all these allegations, or none of them at all— but based what the MPS published in 2016, it’s an entirely true statement.

However, in the interests of fairness, I’ll point out the following:

  • The data is at least 18 months out-of-date
  • The data is being misrepresented to make my point

My point isn’t to defend Uber; they’ve behaved appallingly in the past and there’s no excuse for not abiding by the rules of the regulator. My point is that if public safety is truly at stake, then I expect discussion and decisions based on facts — not politics or agendas.