Warning: this story contains descriptions of sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing.
For this story, last names have been omitted to protect the identities of these women and in some cases, the names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Tara, a former elementary school English teacher who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, had been driving for Uber for about two years when she had her first distressing experience with a customer. Late one night, several years ago, she picked up a male passenger outside of a bar. A few minutes into the ride, the man suddenly unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her.
Tara said that she reported the passenger to Uber. The rideshare company assured her that she would not be paired with that rider again, but said nothing about his ability to use the app in the future.
Several months later, Tara was outside the same bar in Charleston, waiting for a surge in requests with some other female drivers. They were talking, and she told them what had happened. To her surprise, both women told her that they had recently picked up the same passenger, weeks after Tara said she had reported him.
Tara’s story is not uncommon. In interviews with over 25 female rideshare drivers across the country, their experiences vary, from having passengers flirt with them, solicit them for sex, or making unwanted advances toward them. Many said they have taken to carrying pepper spray or other defensive weapons in their vehicles in defiance of the app company’s policies banning such items. All of the drivers said that they do not feel completely protected or supported by the companies on whose platforms they conduct their business.
“It just feels like they don’t care about our safety,” said one driver.
Earlier this year, Lyft released its first-ever safety reportsd, which revealed 4,000 sexual assault claims from 2017–2019. Similarly, in 2019, Uber released its safety report, which showed just over 3,000 sexual assault claims from 2017–2018. (Uber hasn’t released an update in three years.) Around half of these claims came from drivers, who alleged that they were victims of sexual assault from their passengers.
Over the last few years, most of the attention has been on passenger safety, prompting Uber and Lyft to roll out more safety measures for their customers. Both companies are currently facing multiple lawsuits from female customers who allege Uber and Lyft have failed to protect them from rape or assault.
Currently, new drivers on both Uber and Lyft have to undergo detailed background checks before being authorized to drive. Both drivers and customers now have access to an in-app panic button that automatically contacts a 911 dispatcher and shares the caller’s location.
In 2020, Uber announced plans to require all new drivers in the US and Canada to complete sexual assault and misconduct training as a part of the companies’ partnership with RAINN, a national anti-sexual assault organization — a big step in regards to passenger safety.
But many drivers say these efforts still aren’t enough.
“They don’t do enough when a driver is assaulted,” said Michelle Dottin, a driver and advocate. “Safety, in general, should be for everyone. It shouldn’t be one-sided, and the way that these companies do it, it feels more one-sided — they don’t really worry as much about their drivers.”
In 2019, a pregnant Lyft driver in Arizona, 39-year-old Kristina Howato, was fatally stabbed by a passenger, reigniting conversations regarding driver safety. But two years later, many female drivers say that they don’t feel that much safer.
Passengers are not currently required to complete background checks or sexual misconduct training before making an account. Despite making it safer for drivers, enforcing these additional measures could slow down the sign-up process, which rideshare companies tout as a central, seamless feature of their service.
As it stands, there is no identity verification needed for passengers unless they are paying with a gift card or prepaid card. Riders can technically still use fake names or their friend’s accounts, making them harder to identify and track down if a report is made against them.
Rideshare drivers are legally classified as independent contractors, so they lack the protections available to regular employees. Everything from company-provided equipment such as dashboard cameras to the right to collective bargaining for better working conditions is denied to them.
Many drivers appreciate the freedom and flexibility that contract work allows but become frustrated when they feel unsupported by the companies — especially when it comes to safety.
A few months after the first incident occurred, Tara recalls driving a group of drunk men back to a golf resort in Charleston, South Carolina.
After making several stops, she had one man left to drop off. He was sitting in the front seat, she remembered, still intoxicated and still flirting with her, as he had been for the entire ride. He noticed that Tara was reading Stephen King’s “It,” which was placed on the dashboard. She was on page 262.
“You must be smart if you’re reading Stephen King,” he said.
Tara ignored him and drove cautiously to his destination. She waited for him to get out of the car. But then, according to Tara, the man began making advances towards her. She resisted. He grabbed her keys from the ignition. She honked the car horn, hoping that someone would hear, and as she reached for the car door, he slapped her hand. Tara froze.
Out of nowhere, the passenger’s friends reappeared and took him back to the hotel. After they were gone, Tara remembers sobbing in her car.
“He was very drunk, so I was lucky. If he hadn’t been as drunk, he would have raped me,” she said, thinking back to that night. “He made me feel weak; I still feel weak.”
Tara said that she never reported it to Uber or the local police. She had made several reports against passengers in the past but contends that she was left disappointed by the lack of action from both Uber and local law enforcement. She assumed that reporting this incident would again amount to nothing.
Tara says that she has an audio recording of the incident but has never given it to law enforcement or Uber.
To this day, the bookmark in Stephen King’s “It” is still on page 262. After what happened, she couldn’t bring herself to finish the book.
One of the realities of gig work is the trade-off between flexibility and protection. Many female drivers are mothers and value the ability to set their own schedules. But they say that the lack of safety measures limits the flexibility that drew them to the work in the first place.
Choosing whether or not to drive at night is a decision that many female drivers face. The demand is higher at night, so they can make more money, but they are more likely to encounter inappropriate or threatening passengers.
Around 21 percent of Lyft drivers and 27 percent of Uber drivers in the US are women. Nearly half of the women interviewed for this story said that they do not drive at night for safety reasons. But for some, driving at night is essential in order to make a living as there is more money to be made, and many drivers interviewed also have day jobs, so they are only able to drive at night.
“There are also women who only pick up at the airports or in certain neighborhoods,” said Moira Muntz, spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, a driver-led advocacy group. “But that limits their income, as they spend a lot more time waiting between pickups.”
The Independent Drivers Guild is currently advocating for more passenger verification, background checks, and subsidized in-vehicle cameras, among other measures focused on making conditions safer for drivers.
Susan, 58, is a Lyft driver in Houston, Texas. She mainly drives at night as there is less traffic and higher demand.
Around two years ago, Susan said that she picked up a male passenger from a club in Houston. During the ride, she claims that he propositioned her for sex and kept offering her money for sexual favors. She declined multiple times and drove a little faster to the destination. They were right around the corner from his house, so the incident did not escalate further.
Susan said that she reported this passenger, and though she could not locate a copy of the two-year-old report, she remembers receiving a message from Lyft saying that they had unpaired her with this passenger.
“All they say is, ‘Oh, sorry that this happened to you, we’ll make sure you never get a ride with him again. And we’ll investigate this.’ But we never know what’s gonna happen because they don’t ever tell us,” she said.
Earlier this year, two years after she originally picked up that passenger, Susan said that she accepted a ride and was driving to the passenger’s pick-up point when she received a message from the rider. She recalled that the message said that he did not need a ride after all but that instead, he began offering her money for sexual favors. Susan looked at the address again and realized that it was the same man.
“He had a different name this time. But when I drove up, I remembered the address right where I dropped him off,” she said.
Susan said that she immediately canceled the ride. She continues to be frustrated at how the passenger had been able to make a new account with a different name despite having been reported in the past.
“He is probably still out there doing the same thing,” said Susan.
Some female drivers take it upon themselves to find ways to pre-empt passengers from doing anything inappropriate or unsafe. The tactics range from putting music on to avoid conversation to forgoing makeup and wearing baggy clothes so they don’t come across as “too attractive.” Several drivers even wear fake wedding rings and tell their passengers that their partners work in law enforcement, even if it’s untrue.
“Men will always respect other men more than women,” said one driver.
Dashboard cameras are another tool that can help a driver feel safer. But these can cost anywhere from $100–$400, often more than a day’s income.
“When a rider sees a dashcam, their behavior changes, it makes a difference,” said driver advocate Michelle Dottin.
Many women admitted to carrying some type of weapon in their cars for protection, from pepper spray and wasp spray to tasers and knives — often going against company policy, such as Lyft’s “No Weapons” policy. Uber has a similar policy, their website states that riders and drivers are “prohibited from carrying firearms or weapons of any kind (e.g., knives, tasers) while using the Uber apps, to the extent permitted by applicable law.”
Most of the women admitted to never having used the weapons they carry but explained that having them easily accessible is important when it comes to safety, especially considering the lack of screening for riders. For several drivers, the risk of being deactivated is overshadowed by the importance of protecting themselves from harm.
A driver from Houston, Texas, admitted that in the past, she has brandished a taser when dealing with male passengers who have persisted in making her feel uncomfortable, even after declining their advances multiple times.
“I just turn on the taser real quick, and that pretty much calms them down,” she said.
Others rely on significant others or family members who track them on their phones, which makes many drivers feel more protected.
Uber and Lyft have long defended their safety measures with regard to their drivers and passengers. When approached for comment, Jodi Kawada Page, a spokesperson from Uber said that they are committed to safety.
“We remain steadfast in our commitment to safety,” said Page in an email. “We have pioneered new safety features, processes, and policies guided by experts and gender-based violence prevention advocates.”
Page went on to highlight many new features and policies that Uber has implemented in the last few years that are focused on passenger and driver safety. These include but are not limited to having launched a 24-7 dedicated survivor support hotline, an in-app emergency 911 button as well as educational videos, developed with RAINN, which are sent to riders and drivers when they receive a report of inappropriate behavior.
The spokesperson explained that Uber has recently implemented a system that prevents people who have been previously deactivated from making a new account by flagging fraud indicators such as similar data and information.
Last year, Uber announced their new rider verification system that asks some passengers for an extra level of verification. This feature only applies to passengers using anonymous forms of payment such as Venmo or a gift card.
Whatever their hours, rideshare driving can be a lonely profession, and lots of drivers gather in Facebook groups to get advice, share stories, and meet others.
Allison, a Lyft driver in Austin, Texas, shared in one of the female-only drivers’ Facebook groups in November of 2021 that she had reported a passenger for making unwanted advances towards her. She explained that Lyft had emailed her and told her they had dealt with the passenger. But then, later that week, she said that they sent her another email saying they could not find the ride in question, leaving her unsure if she would pick him up again.
She then said that she followed up with Lyft and provided them with additional information regarding the incident, but said that she never heard back.
“We are so vulnerable,” she said.
Ashley Adams, a spokesperson from Lyft, said that safety is fundamental to their company and that they are constantly designing features and policies in an attempt to help make every Lyft ride safe. In the email, the spokesperson pointed to features such as the in-app emergency help button as well as their 24/7 safety support line. (Both of these features have been well received by drivers across the country.)
“While we do unpair riders and drivers who rate each other 3 stars or fewer, when we receive safety reports it is our policy to take additional action, which can include investigating internally, gathering additional information from riders and drivers, and deactivating the accounts used,” said Adams in an email.
In certain markets, Lyft said that they are working on ways to identify and take action against new and existing rider accounts that they determine to be high-risk. These include temporarily and permanently deactivating accounts, blocking users from creating new accounts, and requiring riders to submit additional information before requesting a ride.
“Violence and harassment are not tolerated on the Lyft platform, and accounts of drivers or riders who engage in such behavior or otherwise violate our Community Guidelines are permanently removed from the platform,” Adams said in an email.
A few years ago, Tara created a local Facebook group for Myrtle Beach and Charleston drivers. Through it, she met Cathy, a 60-year-old former special education teacher, who was driving in the same area. They quickly became friends.
Tara and Cathy began keeping an eye on each other throughout their rides. At the end of each work night, they would meet at a Walmart parking lot in Charleston to take naps before heading back to Myrtle Beach, about two hours away.
“We had each other. If I were gone too long, she would call to ensure I was okay,” Tara explained. “And, you know, same for me if I didn’t hear from her for a while, I would call her and make sure everything was going okay.”
They both stopped driving full-time recently but occasionally still take the wheel on busy days like Thanksgiving. They are still friends. Both Tara and Cathy hope that Uber and Lyft start doing a better job protecting their drivers, holding their passengers accountable, and getting better at responding to sensitive incidents, including sexual assault and harassment.
Looking back, Tara said that she wished that she’d had Cathy during her first few years on the job but is grateful for the years that they were able to support each other.
“We were just two women from the same city who had to create a buddy system and keep track of each other to make sure we were safe,” she said. “We supported each other when Uber didn’t.”