Tales of safety + surveillance from drivers
In Los Angeles, Jose and I are chatting, and I ask him if he ever avoids certain neighborhoods. He admits he does, like Compton, but his voice wavers off before he completes his sentence. Going silent, he removes his smartphone from its mount and covers it with his left hand, pressing it into his leg, before resuming our conversation. Uncomfortable discussing a taboo, he switches topics, but eventually he explains that he hid his Uber phone because he’s worried that Uber is watching:
“There are cameras. Uber. Every time I open my application when you guys get in, it’s being filmed by Uber. Every time the riders get in. For your safety, and my safety. They do it by theirselves. Sometimes you just make comment they don’t want you to heard.” — Jose
While Jose is inaccurate (as far as I know, Uber is not listening through the mic or taking control of the camera), he’s not exactly wrong. Uber does track driver behavior, such as through the rating system, and more recently, through telematics: how drivers break, accelerate, and speed are monitored. It’s not such a stretch to presume that the boss is listening and watching, too.
Lyft the Counselor
Drivers use different strategies to manage their safety on the job. Beth, a woman in her mid-30s, carries mace with her as a precaution, always, but she’s never had an occasion to use it with Lyft. It’s part of her larger preparations for the job: she started by investigating all the expenses and methods she needs to manage her finances for running a small business as an Independent Contractor, which is rare for ridehail drivers. Many drivers are willing to run errands, but they’re not prepared to run a small business.
Beth grew up in a military family, and has taken self-defense classes since she was a kid. She also talks approvingly of the rating system as a way to keep both drivers and passengers safe.
“And the fact that since there’s kind of a rating system. Not only can a driver not ride if anything goes below 4 stars, a rider cannot ride if it goes below 4 stars.” — Beth
Beth’s belief is a misconception, but misinformation is rife in the ridehail world because there’s not really a reliable source of full or nuanced information from the companies’ about how their systems work. Lyft doesn’t deactivate poorly-rated passengers, but if a driver rates a passenger at 3 stars or lower, Lyft won’t match those two again. The passenger remains active on the system, though.
Jose’s misconception mirrors, in some ways, Beth’s: both drivers have a false sense of security they derive from features or rules they perceive in the apps. Jose thinks Uber snaps passenger photos, and Beth thinks that any passengers who behave below four stars are deactivated, so she has more confidence that any passenger she receives has passed that threshold.
Beth also learns that the best way to handle irate passengers (and, by implication, her own safety) is to always agree with them, even if they’re insisting she go the wrong way to get to their destination, or screaming out the window in a residential neighborhood after a disappointing night at the bar. She paid close attention to her Mentor session, which Lyft (but not Uber) provides to new drivers to teach them a little about the system, which functions a bit like a vetting process.
“My Mentor, the person who introduced me to the driving process and everything like that, she was telling me she had this one guy who got into her car, and after a few minutes he lit a cigarette…she turns around and says “do you need to do that right now?” and he insists he does.”
In the script Beth relays, her Mentor puts the smoker out of the car and tells him he’s welcome to reschedule a Lyft when he finishes his cigarette. Her account indicates that drivers perceive in Lyft a certain care for their drivers by teaching them the ideal way to manage difficult passengers smoothly. The company also encourages drivers to volunteer their side of the story if they perceive anything went awry on a trip.
How drivers manage safety also reveals something interesting about how drivers perceive Uber v. Lyft: Beth can seek counsel from a mentor with Lyft, but Jose thinks safety is related to a surveillant, retributive boss. Driver perception that the rating system keeps everyone better behaved is pretty common for both Uber & Lyft.
One of the benefits of driving for Uber & Lyft is cashless exchange, except for tips. Drivers universally appreciate that Lyft permits tips on the app, but Uber’s refusal to include it as a feature is a pain point for drivers. While some of them have tip jars, drivers rely on the promotion of cashless exchange as a point of personal safety, to reduce the chance of being robbed, but that isn’t the only threat to consider when they navigate safety on the job.
When drivers discuss the dangers of their job, they usually reference a passenger who made them uncomfortable, or, more commonly, specific neighborhoods they avoid, such as by logging out when they’re nearby so they don’t get a ride request. Most drivers know it’s taboo to explicitly discriminate based on destination, and they generally express a willingness to accommodate passenger requests, but sometimes perceptions about dangerous neighborhoods become a factor in their risk assessment. (One of the big selling points for ridehail services is that they go where cabs refuse to venture, particularly to low-income, minority neighborhoods).
Thomas, a forbearing man in his late 40s with grizzled features, is familiar with the ins-and-outs of driving for Uber and Lyft. He’s got 2 years of experience driving in Salt Lake City, Utah. With a shrug in his voice, though, he recounts how, “Someone pulled a gun on me once. I was driving around a dangerous neighborhood late at night, and the customer was lost so I kept circling, looking for them.” His car is so decked out in driver swag that it’d be hard to mistake him for anything but an Uber/Lyft driver
Still, the man outside threatened to shoot if he didn’t leave. “He was out there. If he shot me, that’d be it. I wouldn’t even know it,” he muses. Thomas’ tip jar is stuffed with $1 bills, and the occasional fiver, and on another occasion, he was sure one of his passengers was about to rob him. The passenger recently lost their job, and he was heading home to a not-great neighborhood, but Thomas credits his unofficial therapy session with the man as an antidote. “I guess I was too nice to rob,” he cracks, with a hint of benevolent amusement. He seems sturdy and self-sufficient, able and willing to manage any situation that comes up, and he doesn’t seem to have a dash-cam in the car. (Maybe it would be culturally inappropriate to sic surveillance cams on passengers in Salt Lake City).