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Uber, Lyft team up on database to expose abusive drivers

Uber and Lyft have teamed up to create a database of drivers ousted from their ride-hailing services for complaints about sexual assault and other crimes that have raised passenger safety concerns for years.

The clearing house unveiled on Thursday will initially list drivers expelled by the ride-hailing rivals in the US. But it will also be open to other companies that deploy workers to perform services such as delivering groceries or takeout orders from restaurants.

The new safeguard, dubbed the “sharing safety programme”, will be overseen by HireRight, a specialist in background checks. The use of a third party is aimed at addressing potential legal concerns about companies, including competitors such as Uber and Lyft, having access to information of each other’s personnel matters.

“Lyft and Uber are competitors in a whole lot of ways, but on this issue of safety, we completely agree that folks should be safe no matter what platform they choose,” Tony West, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer, told The Associated Press. He spoke in an interview that included Jennifer Brandenburger, Lyft’s head of policy development.

The safety programme follows through on a promise Uber made 15 months ago when it said that more than 3,000 sexual assaults had been reported on its service in the US during 2018.

Since that disclosure, San Francisco-based Uber and Lyft have been working to navigate through antitrust and privacy concerns to create a way to flag drivers, who have engaged in violent or other abhorrent behaviour that culminated in them being booted off their services.

Sharing information about reported sexual assaults is considered especially important because victims of such crimes frequently don’t file formal complaints with the police. That gap has opened a crack for potentially dangerous drivers to slip through routine background checks drawing upon legal records, Brandenburger said.

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To protect privacy, no passenger information will be shared on the database and incidents that resulted in a driver’s dismissal will be listed in six broad categories: attempted non-consensual sexual penetration; non-consensual touching of a sexual body part; non-consensual kissing of a sexual body part; non-consensual kissing of a non-sexual body part; non-consensual sexual penetration; and fatal physical assaults.

“Only fraction of a fraction” of drivers have engaged in behaviour that fall into those categories, West said. Any company with access to the clearing house of information could still decide to allow a driver on its service after its own investigation, West said.

Michael Wolfe, a Uber driver who also leads a Washington state group representing about 2,000 other drivers, praised the two ride-hailing services for trying to weed out abuses in the industry.

“The few bad apples give all us drivers a bad name,” said Wolfe, Executive Director for Drive Forward.

The added layer of protection was hailed by the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, a victims’ rights group that has criticised the ride-hailing services for not doing more rigorous screening of their drivers.

“Sexual violence thrives in secrecy,” said Scott Berkowitz, the network’s president. “Thanks to this initiative, perpetrators will no longer be able to hide or escape accountability by simply switching ride-sharing platforms.”

It could also help appease US lawmakers, who have criticised Uber and Lyft in the past for inadequate safety protections for their riders.

Lyft hasn’t delivered on its promise to release a report about past problems on its service because the company is waiting for Uber to resolve a privacy dispute with California regulators, according to Brandenburger.

After Uber detailed past abuses on its service in its December 2019 report, California’s Public Utilities Commission sought the victims’ names and contact numbers. After Uber rebuffed the request to protect victims’ privacy, the agency slapped the company with a $59-million fine. The dispute is now in the appeals process.

The safety feature is rolling out at a time when both ride-hailing services are still trying to rebound from the pandemic-driven lockdowns that have prevented people from travelling and curtailed demand for rides, especially from strangers.

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