By Published: November 13, 2015, 9:30 pm
AUSTIN (KXAN) – Seven sexual assault claims. That’s how many cases Austin police say they’re investigating involving Uber and Lyft drivers accused of sexually assaulting their passenger over the past few months.
This new information comes out as a heated debate continues at city hall over whether the City of Austin should impose more regulations on ride-share companies, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).
Between April and August, Austin police received five complaints from women stating their Uber driver assaulted them. Two other complainants told detectives they were assaulted by their Lyft driver, records show.
Each case is alleged to have happened late at night when the rider was alone with their driver. Since no arrests have been made and the cases currently under investigation, the version of the reports KXAN obtained through an Open Records request are heavily redacted, showing a minimal narrative. Names of victims and alleged perpetrators have also been redacted.
KXAN also reached out to other local police agencies, none reported sex-related crimes involving a ride-share driver or passenger.
Separately, SafePlace Austin, a campus that provides service for sexual and domestic violence victims, tells KXAN it has been dealing with its own cases of alleged ride-share assaults.
- Be fully aware of your surroundings
- Make sure your driver is the person on the app
- Get a designated driver before leaving home if you plan on drinking
- Share the ride with someone you know
“We've had four different situations [over the past several months] in which a survivor told us they were assaulted by an Uber or Lyft driver,” confirms Coni Stogner, a counselor at SafePlace.
Confidentiality rules prevent KXAN from knowing if those four women are the same ones who also notified police about their attacks. SafePlace tells survivors they have a choice about whether to report their attacks to law enforcement.
“She's making a conscious decision beforehand - 'I want to be safe, I don't want to drink and drive.' And then to ultimately to have that turn to where she's assaulted, after having made a choice to be safe, that's just horrific,” says Stogner.
Neither managers at Uber nor Lyft had heard about the incidents through their own complaint systems.
“We have a robust safety platform. I believe Uber's one of the best safety options on the road,” says Marco McCottry, general manager at Uber.
Lyft managers say they revoked the access of at least one of the drivers involved the police complaints after KXAN informed them of the alleged incident from this summer. When there is a safety-related incident, Lyft says they immediately remove the driver from the platform as they collect more details on the case. They then reach out to the passenger to offer support and are available to assist law enforcement.
Uber runs a similar system, saying they work closely with police when needed.
When asked if the companies can provide an exact number of drivers whose access had been revoked due to sex-related complaints, the companies denied our request citing third party privacy concerns.
Like Lyft, Uber also runs its applicants through a third party national criminal background and driver check and has a zero tolerance policy for anyone with a felony criminal conviction.
During any ride, passengers can track their journey via GPS and even ping a friend or family member their location and destination.
Uber Austin’s Debbee Hancock told KXAN by email: “In addition to being able to share with friends and family in real time, a copy of the trip map is included on the emailed receipt along with the driver's information (first name, vehicle type, license plate number).
“Riders are also able to view their trip history within the app. Uber retains a detailed record of the trip. Example, if a rider reports that the driver took a longer route, we can review the trip and if a shorter route is available, we can refund the difference to the rider,” she wrote.
While background checks, GPS tracking and live complaint lines are designed to keep riders safe, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo says riders using any form of ground transportation have to use their common sense.
“You should never feel 100 percent safe, always be aware. More importantly, don't be publicly intoxicated—it makes you a target for people who want to take advantage of you,” says Acevedo. "I can tell you in 29 years of policing, people who are apt to commit a crime look for easy targets.”
On a recent, warm weekend evening on Sixth Street, KXAN observed dozens of Uber and Lyft driver vehicles dropping off and picking up riders at a frequency seemingly outnumbering the city’s permitted cabs. KXAN asked one woman waiting for her Uber driver what she thought about the complaints.
“How many people take an Uber every day and how many are assaulted?” questioned Yvanna Saint-Fort, who is visiting Austin from New Jersey for a work conference. “It's incredibly unfortunate, I'm not trying to gloss over what [the complainants say] happened, but it's just the unfortunate reality of the world we live in.”
Saint-Fort says while she’s never had a problem using a ride-sharing service she does stay on alert by making sure she doesn’t fall asleep in the car if she’s tired and if she’ll sometimes stay on a phone call with a friend during a trip.
Are taxis safer than ride-shares?
KXAN requested a year's worth of complaint numbers from the City of Austin's Transportation Department. The 107 pages of complaints included service and professionalism issues with taxi drivers, shuttle and limo drivers. The complaints did not contain any sex-related issues.
However, along with the seven ride-share complaints made to police between last April and August, KXAN also found three involving cab drivers. At last check, all remain under investigation.
In October, Uber sent a memo to Mayor Steve Alder stating of 163 Austin cab drivers who applied to Uber, 53 “were prevented from partnering with Uber due to failing Uber’s background check process,” McCottry wrote in the memo obtained by KXAN News. Further, 19 of those 53 were rejected “because of a recent serious offense (conviction). Crimes included felony assaults, DWIs and a hit and run.” Uber says its staff used chauffeur’s license data from the city of Austin from 2012-2015. It is not clear if the people who applied with Uber and were denied still have active Austin taxi licenses.
Still, security-minded groups like those at SafePlace are advocating for strong rules for all ground transportation providers – including better education on how to use the new form of ‘sharing’ transportation.
In Dallas, the city has a brightly-colored notice posted on its website advising people to only use licensed vehicles driven by permitted drivers.
One ride-share driver echoes the cautious approach to this brave, new world of travel.
“I tell girls, 'Be very careful.’Because you don't know who you're getting in the car with. If you got a bad feeling about it, don't get in the car. Seriously, trust your gut,” he told a KXAN producer who rode with him one recent weekday afternoon.
Austin City Council members are discussing ways to formalize guidelines for TNCs and all ground transportation providers. Currently, a person who wants to receive a permit to drive a taxi or limo within the city must submit to a DPS background check.
On Nov. 16, Austin’s Mobility Committee will take up the task of refining the language of rules around a new compulsory fingerprint background check along with fees the city council approved in October. Houston is currently the only city in Texas where Uber drivers are required to get fingerprint checks. It’s voluntary in San Antonio.
Committee Chair Ann Kitchen says they will also decide on how to balance out differing licensing and safety regulations for all ground transportation providers.
"What we've committed to do... is take the best of what's out there in terms of protecting people when they're in a car.” She adds some of those best practice ideas come from the ride-share industry (such as posting the driver's photo on the ride-hail app) and others come from the taxi business (such as mandatory GPS units connected to the vehicle and in-car cameras for all permit-holders).
One recent city staff report recommended any new rules mirror existing best practices of TNCs: a national criminal background check and zero tolerance felony conviction, including drug and alcohol-related convictions. Kitchen backs the council-approved fingerprint background checks as long as they're done quickly and easily for driver applicants.
For ride-sharing companies, they say their business model is built around convenience for riders. That means the more drivers—Uber boasts 10,000 in Austin— the shorter the wait times, since a driver logged on to the app could be just around the corner. While technology is moving quickly, cities are trying to keep up with the changing landscape of transportation options.
After an Uber driver was charged in the rape of a Dallas woman in July, Uber managers say they began more frequent driver spot checks. It's a practice Uber confirms is now being done in Austin, too. In San Antonio, the rules include having city staff conduct unannounced spot checks of TNC drivers.
Uber Austin recently released this statement in connection with a recent audit of city transportation companies: "While no means of transportation can ever be 100 percent safe, it's our goal to design safety checks that reduce incidents... and accurately gauge whether a driver might put a driver at risk."
To date, the only local ride-share incident in Travis County that has resulted in criminal charges involves former Uber driver Michael Olu-Wehuje, 55. The victim told police the driver held her against her will after she agreed to go to his apartment with him. She was unhurt. Uber says Olu-Wehuje’s access to be a driver was revoked.
Uber Austin’s McCottry says, “Nobody ever wants to hear about an incident like that. It’s something you don't want to hear about as GM of Uber [Austin].
Uber Launches Ad Focused on Safety
A week before the Nov. 16 meeting, Uber Austin launched the following ad campaign urging city officials to not restrict Uber's business in the city.
Uber’s Safety Process
- Uber drivers typically display their name, photo, license plate number and photo of their vehicle in their profile
- Every trip is GPS tracked
- Riders can ping those waiting for them their exact location in real time and time of arrival
- Drivers and riders can rate each other after each trip
- Uber coordinates with law enforcement where needed