By: Eric Myers, Captial News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Beaudouin Tchakounte was driving for Uber on the night of Aug. 27 in Oxon Hill, Maryland, when he and passenger Casey Xavier Robinson were fatally shot inside the 2015 silver Mercedes-Benz, Prince George’s County Police said.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy announced Sept. 26 that Aaron Wilson Jr. of Fort Washington, Maryland, was indicted on two counts of common law murder, two counts of use of a firearm in a crime of violence and two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in connection with the deaths.
If convicted, Wilson could be sentenced to a maximum of two life sentences plus 40 years, according to Braveboy’s office. Wilson had requested a shared ride via Uber, police said.
Anytime similar troublesome events occur, both to drivers and passengers, ride-hailing — or ride-sharing — platforms such as Lyft and Uber see their safety policies face increased scrutiny.
“It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking to hear,” said Dylan Himmerich, who runs The Rideshare Hub, a YouTube channel dedicated to providing tips and information for drivers. “I think rideshare safety should be stressed more — for drivers and for passengers. I think there are a lot of holes.”
Representatives for Lyft and Uber said that their respective companies continue to emphasize safety and further enhancements that can be made in that area.
Safety for passengers starts with the background checks both top ride-hailing platforms conduct on prospective drivers. Uber and Lyft’s background checks review an applicants’ driving record and criminal history.
Uber and Lyft also said they conduct annual background checks of each driver on their platform.
States also have their own regulations to determine driving applicants’ eligibility.
In Maryland, the Public Service Commission reviews the information it receives about each driver from a transportation network company such as Uber or Lyft and makes a final determination on whether it will issue a license to operate as a ride-hailing driver in the state.
Of the greater than 230,000 applications processed from July 2015 through June 2019, the state’s Public Service Commission rejected 2,005 for criminal reasons and 3,422 for driving-related issues, even though those drivers passed Uber or Lyft’s background checks, according to data Capital News Service received from a public information request.
Both apps have safety features built in that allow drivers and passengers to report dangerous or concerning behavior right from their smartphones.
During a ride, with both top ride-hailing platforms, drivers and passengers have access to support from the company and can reach emergency personnel with the click of a few buttons within the app.
Both apps’ safety hubs display the current location and vehicle information so that they can easily transmit that information.
Uber has rolled out “911 Integration” in more than 60 cities, and counting, spokeswoman Kayla Whaling told Capital News Service. 911 Integration automatically sends the location, license plate and the vehicle’s make and model to the dispatcher when the user taps the emergency assist button on their phone.
The apps also use GPS tracking of trips as an indication of when something may be wrong, for example, if a vehicle is stopped at an unplanned location for an extended period of time.
Uber’s “RideCheck” and Lyft’s “Smart Trip Check-In,” both of which debuted last month, send a push notification to both the driver and passenger to ask whether they need assistance when a trip incurs a long delay.
Tracking rides has also allowed Uber users to share trips with other people. A similar ride-progress tracking tool is “coming soon” to Lyft, according to its website.
Drivers are also given the right to use their own discretion to protect themselves.
“If drivers feel unsafe, and want to cancel the ride, they have full autonomy to do so,” Whaling said.
Thomas Widmer, an Uber and Lyft driver in Austin, Texas, said he once found himself in an unsafe situation and used his own judgment to end a ride early.
Widmer described a passenger who he believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and was being very aggressive and trying to dictate how he was driving. After the passenger’s repeated attempts to get Widmer to stop for him to urinate, Widmer took him to a shopping plaza and ended the trip.
After reviewing the situation, Widmer said Uber told him that he wouldn’t be matched with that account in the future. But, Widmer said, the account belonged to somebody else and said there should be a feature to identify the actual passenger when it’s not their account.
Matching riders with the correct drivers garnered heavy media attention after an incident in March.
University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson requested an Uber, but got into a vehicle that officers believe she incorrectly thought was her ride, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said in a March 29 news conference. Josephson was later found dead in a wooded area in South Carolina, Holbrook said.
In June, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed “Sami’s Law” in Josephson’s hometown of Robbinsville that requires ride-hailing vehicles to have a scannable barcode to confirm the ride, along with two identifying markers on the front windshield and back window.
U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. introduced a similar bill at the federal level, also called Sami’s Law, in June.
Uber announced on Sept. 26 that an optional feature will provide riders a unique four-digit PIN number to give the driver before entering the vehicle. The driver must then enter the correct pin on the app before the trip begins. This feature is expected to be available on the app in November, according to Uber.
But when the ride gets underway, problems can still arise. Himmerich said a logical step to adding another layer of protection would be adding cameras inside cars.
“It’s pretty shocking that there aren’t cameras inside of every car,” said Himmerich, who drives in Southern California. “With so much technology available, it would be easy to set up cameras.”
When rides do go wrong, Uber has a Special Investigations Unit to look into incidents.
A Sept. 26 report in the Washington Post found concerns that the unit prioritized protecting the company over passenger safety, citing interviews with more than 20 current and former Uber employees.
Uber, however, disputed those claims made about the unit, created in 2017 to, “provide specialized customer support to riders and drivers dealing with very serious real-life situations,” the company said.
“We are very proud of this team’s work and know they approach their jobs with tremendous compassion and understanding. Characterizing this team as anything but providing support to people after a difficult experience is just wrong,” an Uber representative said in a statement. “We will continue to put safety at the heart of everything we do and implement new approaches, based on expert guidance, to the benefit of both our customers and employees.”
Despite the concerns about ride-hailing platforms, the industry continues to grow. From 2017 to 2018, the number of ride-hailing users increased from 51.5 million to 58.4 million, according to Statista. That number is projected to reach 97.4 million in 2023.
“There’s a lot of safety issues because when you’re picking up strangers in your car… there’s a lot of room for error or things to go bad,” Himmerich said. “You’re in such a tight space with another individual, and a lot of the times there’s no one around.”