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Ridesharing Before, During, and After COVID-19

Online students enjoy the convenience of studying and attending lectures wherever there’s an internet connection. But others need to commute to a university, dig for the right payment for parking or transportation, and lug their books and laptop to the classroom door. With the advent of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, a convenient option for students has surfaced. But beware, ridesharing has its drawbacks too.

Numerous U.S. companies operate rideshare programs utilizing advancing technologies that match rideshare drivers with paying passengers, much like a taxi service. However, unlike a traditional taxicab, rideshare companies are not required to follow the same licensing and regulatory requirements, which has created unique problems. 

Breaking from Convention

Since the invention of the automobile, parents have taught their children not to get into cars with strangers, due to the potentially life-threatening danger it could create. Today, families face serious dilemmas on how their children should get around the community or get home from school when both parents are at work. Due to long distances and unsafe neighborhoods, bicycling and walking are not always an option.

In recent years, many teenagers have chosen to save the money that they would have used to purchase a car. Instead, these students utilize ridesharing applications like Uber, Lyft, and Zip Car routinely for their daily transportation. They use the platform even though it’s not allowed for minor students. 

The rising costs of purchasing a passenger vehicle and the associated ongoing monthly payments and putting down a considerable amount to obtain the loan is prohibitive to many students. Additionally, car ownership requires keeping insurance, paying taxes, buying gasoline, parking costs, and continual maintenance of their transportation investment. Alternatively, rideshare programs provide quick transportation services to more than thirty-six percent of individuals in America, even though there is an inherent risk of danger, injury, and death.

Ridesharing in a COVID-19 Environment

In a COVID-19 environment, both the Uber or Lyft driver as well as the passenger may be in danger of contracting the illness from each other. For the passenger, there are numerous hurdles if they want to file a lawsuit against the ridesharing company. This begins with the fact that, in nearly all states, the Uber driver is an independent contractor. Accordingly, you would need to file a claim against the driver’s auto insurance. It would be exceedingly difficult to prove that you contracted the virus from the ridesharing driver or in their car.

There have been lawsuits filed against Uber and Lyft for endangering the public by not giving their drivers sick leave during the pandemic. However, it would be difficult to sue for an individual case of COVID-19 unless you could conclusively prove the origin of the case. Then, you may be able to file a lawsuit against the company based on its policies.

Drivers are also at risk from COVID-19 as numerous passengers get into their car every day. The ridesharing drivers have no idea when they pick up a passenger whether that person is sick and have no way of testing them. Here is where drivers get a particularly raw deal. Since they are presumably misclassified as independent contractors, they are not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured on the job. This does give them an opening to file a personal injury lawsuit against Uber or Lyft because one way to be able to sue your employer is if they do not have workers’ compensation insurance. However, the driver would first need to show that they are an employee as opposed to an independent contractor.

Rideshare Passengers under 18 Years of Age

Rideshare drivers working for Uber, Lyft, Hitch-a-Ride, Ridejoy, HopSkipDrive, Car2Go, Zum, and others receive training to learn they must forbid accepting a job to transport children under 18, riding without an adult in the vehicle. Older teens using the rideshare app on their phone can be turned away from service if the rideshare driver follows protocol and asks, “are you 18 years or older?” when the car arrives at their high school.

The mandated protocol of asking the question of the student’s age tends to happen less often when the child hails a rideshare car at a location anywhere other than school. Teenagers living in urban and suburban areas know that using a rideshare vehicle is very common among their peers because of the simplicity of utilizing the app to get a ride immediately. Many teens and rideshare drivers shrug at the thought that they are using the system illicitly when breaking the rules. Likewise, some parents are “okay” with their kids hailing a rideshare vehicle because of the convenience it provides for everyone in the family.

Pilot Ridesharing Programs for Children

A couple of companies have piloted ridesharing programs specifically for teenagers in specific areas of the country. Uber has chosen Columbus, Ohio, Seattle, Washington, and Phoenix, Arizona, as testing locations to provide better services for families. These programs allow drivers to accept a job traveling an underage child after going through comprehensive vetting and an extensive criminal background check. However, no company has yet to roll out a nationwide “under 18” rideshare program.

The Cost of Convenience

There is an obvious convenience using rideshare programs to ferry underage children to their locations without an adult friend or parent in the car. However, allowing children to get into a stranger’s vehicle, unregulated by state laws and regulations, even if the rideshare platform would allow, creates concerns about safety issues involved in using these services. 

In 2019, Uber released its first safety report claiming that there were over 3000 sexual assaults involving their drivers the previous year. More than 500 Uber-related sex crimes and rapes that year happened in New York City alone. Additionally, nationwide, Uber had nine driver-related murderers, and nearly five dozen were killed in accidents using their ridesharing service in 2018.

In 2016, an Uber driver shot and killed six individuals in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and wounded two others. That same year, in Atlanta, an Uber driver threatened gay men with a gun. That year, Uber reported that law enforcement was involved in only about one-third of all rape incidents that the company reported through its rideshare app. Uber continues to work with advocacy groups to categorize sexual assault cases involving their drivers that range from nonconsensual penetration to nonconsensual kissing.

In early December 2019, nineteen women filed a lawsuit against Lyft, alleging the company failed to prevent driver-related sexual assault. The women stated that Lyft never performed a comprehensive investigation into the problem. One female passenger in California, in 2017, reported a rape by a Lyft rideshare driver. The woman filed a lawsuit against the company over its failure to ensure that its passengers remain safe. The plaintiff was not alone in filing cases in state courthouses. An additional fourteen women during the same month also sued the company for mishandling their reported cases of rape.

A Company Response

Since 2018, Uber has reported removing over 4000 rideshare drivers from their platform. The company states it is using an evolving automated screen technology for checking their drivers’ motor vehicle records and criminal histories. Additionally, Uber now mandates that its drivers use an app check to assist in verifying their identity before picking up any passengers. The company will soon be using audio recording inside the vehicle to improve its safety record.

However, problems like these are not isolated solely to Uber. A woman taking a short trip using the Lyft platform from Crown Heights to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, alleged that in October 2017, a Lyft driver kidnapped her and drove to a destination where he and two others raped her. The woman first noted that the driver was traveling in the wrong direction soon after getting picked up. At first, she thought he was attempting to scam her out of more money. However, it was not long before the driver became highly aggressive. In her attempt to get out of the vehicle at a stoplight, she realized he had initiated the child lock mechanism, making it impossible for her to open the back-passenger door.

The Lyft driver eventually drove into New Jersey from New York and held the woman at gunpoint, where he and two others raped her. Two years later, the woman filed a lawsuit in federal court against Lyft, stating the company had an “appallingly inadequate response to [the company’s] sexual predator crisis” among its drivers. The lawsuit also noted that the New York Police Department had mishandled her case, although the NYPD denies any wrongdoing.

Rideshare Driver Screening Process

Uber created headlines in 2017 after Colorado state regulators imposed an $8.9 million fine after the company hired nearly five dozen individuals with alarming problems to drive on the ridesharing platform. Reports indicate that some of these Uber drivers had been found guilty of serious offenses, and others were driving without a valid license. 

Out of the fifty-seven individuals, a dozen drivers were convicted felons, seventeen had serious moving violations, and another three had recent convictions of drunk driving. Even though Uber states that it does not allow drivers with any of these grievous concerns to work on their platform, apparently, at least fifty-seven slipped through the cracks.

Ridesharing Transportation of Children Is Unwise

The cases of abuse and sexual molestation throughout society have become rampant over the last century. Not long ago, schools and communities were mostly concerned about latch-key kids needing to look out for themselves for hours at a time after school until their parents arrived home from work. Police would often find these free-ranging children at home alone during an investigation of neglect or abuse by their parents.

In the last few decades, our society expanded the concept of latch-key children to involve how the kid gets home after school. Today, rideshare platform strangers are driving children to or from school or another location to their destination. Although using the platform might be convenient, this concept does not seem to be a wise decision for the child. Stories showed how most rideshare companies do not thoroughly vet new drivers nor continuously check the background of their existing drivers, who end up doing horrific things to their passengers.

Even though Uber, Lyft, and other companies ban unaccompanied minors from using ridesharing services, many drivers accept jobs from underage passengers. Some drivers claim they were unaware that their passengers were under 18 years old and either never asked the question of how old they were or believed that the child was legally an adult. 

Many schools in America today do not allow their schoolchildren to use a rideshare service to get picked up or dropped off at school or any off-premises activities. Other schools require documentation precisely indicating who will be picking the child up and will not authorize the use of a ridesharing service for their underage students under any circumstance.

Making Better Decisions

Rideshare programs have proven effective in helping prevent drunk driving accidents and have been a significant convenience to those with transportation challenges. Even so, there seems to be a direct correlation with ridesharing and the vulnerability of passengers being raped or assaulted in a driver-owned vehicle. Unlike traveling in a taxi with a Plexiglas divider, passengers in rideshare vehicles are transported in intimate quarters without a physical barrier that might prevent any inappropriate behavior from the driver. Parents especially should consider the risks involved in allowing their children to use rideshare platforms, no matter how convenient it might be for the family.

Jonathan RosenfeldAbout the Author
Jonathan Rosenfeld is the founder and managing attorney at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC in Chicago, IL. Jonathan’s law practice is dedicated to the representation of people seriously injured or killed due to the negligence of others. Much of the firm’s practice is concentrated in auto injury law including Uber accidents.

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