500 Uber rides without driver talking on the phone: My personal star-fish story

There is a story I really love.

Once a man was walking down a beach in the morning. He found a little girl doing something strange. She was picking up one starfish after another — the ones that had been washed onto to shore by the waves — and flinging them back into the sea.

“What are you doing?”, he asked her. “I am saving the starfishes”, she said without taking her eyes off them.

The man was amused. The shore was filled with starfishes, and there is no way this girl could save any significant number of them. So he said..

“There are so many of them, you can’t save them all.”

The girl, as she flug one starfish back into sea, looked up at him just for a second, and said..

“I saved this one”

I personally, and I do believe many of us, go by life wanting to change and make a difference to so many things in the world. But often, the magnitude of challenge is so huge that for the want of beginning somewhere, we end up never doing anything at all.

The thought that any effort we make might be so miniscule and insignificant to make any real difference, is so disheartening that we do not even begin to try.
Which is why I love this story.

I have been riding Uber for the last two years. Except few weekends and few odd situations when an Uber is not available, I have always taken Uber. I would have taken well above 500–600 rides by now. Travelling on the road everyday, makes road safety something I am concerned about like many others.

It is not just about safety, and the feeling of horror of how people risk their own and other’s life to get past you (and ironically only to meet you at the next signal). It is also about stress we cause each other with our rudeness to each other on the road.

Now the question was, could I do anything about it more than just criticise it?

I did, and here is what it is.

I have made sure, that adamantly and consistently I have not allowed any driver to continue on a phone call in a cab I have taken — day after day — 500 rides and counting.

Has it been easy? I guess no, and there were challenges.

#1) There were excuses and bluetooth

Most of the drivers have earphones these days and many even bluetooth devices. “It is allowed with a earphone”, I heard often. I had to insist, sometimes to the explicit displeasure of the driver that it is not allowed and against the traffic rules — and that if he had any confusion we could stop by the next traffic police and seek clarification.

I had to be consistent. No phone. Not on any device. No excuses.

#2) Multiple tactics: Saam-Daam-Dand-Bhed

“Saam-daam-dand-bhed”; pronounced similarly phonetically are the famous words from the master strategist of the Indian Mauryan Empire, Chanakya. These are four approaches to management or getting anything done.

Very broadly it translates to pacifying or appeasing or simply asking or requesting (Saam), purchasing or paying off in some way (Daam), punishment (Dand), differentiation (Bhed).

Needlessly to say, across 500+ rides I had to use all tactics.

I think there were about 3–4 rides where the driver did not get a call while on trip. Almost negligible. Everyone else did. About 40–50% of the cases, I would simply have to ask them to not take a call, and they would comply.

There is this one trick someone mentioned once to me, and I have been using it since.

I tell them, if the call is an emergency (which it seldom is), they can stop the car on the side, finish the call and then move.

One thing Indian drivers hate is having to stop apart from at the signal. This almost always works. Except when it doesn’t.

And I have to use the “Dand” (punishment, threat, coercion), which ranges from suggestions of stopping by traffic police, pretending to angrily fiddle with the phone as if I am going to click something on the Uber app, or some mock conversations with any co-passenger on how I will “complain” (that word said extra loudly) to Uber. This takes care of another 30%.

The remaining actually fall under the category of those who self-monitor and disconnect the call (world is not all that bad afterall!). However, I do something here too. I make sure I give them feedback or appreciate the action. I have appreciated them on how responsible a behavior it was and how they were “different” from many other drivers (Bhed), and I also gave them 5-star rating (Daam). I try and make sure the behavior continues beyond this ride.

I don’t limit it to the phone call. I have appreciated drivers if they particularly are careful about giving indicators, did not engage in unnecessary arguments, gave way to ambulance, etc.

#3) Things get ugly at times

I remember this one driver who kept talking on the phone on the handset. At first he plainly ignored me when I repeatedly asked him to cut the call short. Not being a person to give up — when I persisted, he was rude asking me what my problem was. When I used my usual tactics of asking to stop by a traffic police, he said I could get down if I had a problem with his phone. From his manner of talking he seemed a little unstable.

Many times women in our country are taught (and then we continue to to believe in it for our convenience), that we must bother about our safety and not “mess with things”.
That makes it almost 50% of the population. The world cannot afford it. And women are much stronger than that.
I think there is way to remain safe and still stand up for things. That is why God gave us things like common sense and intelligence.

I kept quiet till we reached a place on the route where I could easily find other cabs. I just asked him to end the trip there. I had already activated the SOS alarm by then, and Uber safety team had called me. After getting off the trip, I booked another cab. I reported the incident, and along with the SOS activation, it typically means suspension and investigation for the driver. I had taken the other safety measures of informing my family of the situation and my location.

I also had to wait another 20 mins before getting the next cab, it being the peak hour. But that is what I have committed myself to. Such unpleasantness has happened a couple of more times. Sometimes it is just plain uncomfortable to sit in the cab when you know that the driver is unhappy because you did not allow him to take that phone call.

But is is fine.

#4) I feel like sometimes.. “okay let me chill today.. let the driver talk on the phone”

I get tired at times. Almost anxious, hoping the driver’s phone would not ring today and I would not have to go through the drama. But many times it does ring, and I again make the same effort. I choose to.

I don’t know if I have made any difference to the traffic situation. But like that girl saved that one starfish, I know I made a difference to the 500 Uber rides I took.

I love this dialogue from the movie X-Men Days of the Future Past:

“The past: a new and uncertain world. A world of endless possibilities and infinite outcomes. Countless choices define our fate: each choice, each moment, a moment in the ripple of time. Enough ripple, and you change the tide… for the future is never truly set.”

So here is what I believe.

I alone may not be strong enough to change the tide. I can create a ripple, and another and another. A ripple as adamant as I am, and wait for more of you to join.

And together we will create enough ripples to one day change the tide.

And I do know that it is possible, because every once in a while I come across a driver who says he believes in not taking calls while driving. Or better, one who has an argument with me at the start of the trip, and by the end of it apologises for his behavior.

So I do know first hand, that change happens… many times, one starfish at a time.


Swati Jena is a writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of GhostWritersWorld (www.ghostwritersworld.com); @writingspells on twitter

To connect with Swati and read her other blogs, use this link to Medium blogspot.

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