Last week, I attended a webinar on rideshare safety for survivors of violence, hosted by NNEDV and Uber. Rideshare services like Uber or Lyft can be important resources for folks who need to access transportation, but may feel uncomfortable or unsafe using public transportation. While Uber is a helpful alternative, there are also risks associated with using these services. The webinar shared about Uber’s approach to safety, strategies for mitigating incidents of sexual harassment or violence, privacy and confidentiality, and resources available to survivors, while also leaving some unanswered questions about how survivors can safely navigate these services. Although this webinar wasn’t specific to trans and nonbinary survivors, the information presented is relevant to all Uber riders or potential customers.
Uber and NNEDV have partnered to create a safety guide for survivors. This is a good place to start with getting more in-depth information about Uber’s safety policies and resources.
Elise Maiolino (she/her), the Global Head of Women’s Safety Policy at Uber, described Uber’s approach to safety for survivors as preventative, beginning with background checks for all drivers and built-in safety features, like GPS tracking of all trips, anonymized contact information for drivers and passengers, and 24-hour safety support. More on this later.
Uber also provides training modules to drivers and passengers on respecting privacy and personal space, conversational boundaries, sexual assault awareness, and bystander intervention. Unfortunately, these educational modules are only required for drivers to complete in some states (unless a driver has been reported in a safety incident; then they are required to complete the corresponding training modules).
Considerations for trans folks and survivors
In addition to these general safety features, there are some special considerations that trans survivors may want to keep in mind while using Uber’s rideshare services.
Confidentiality around ride history, pickup locations, and drop-off locations
One consideration for trans folks and survivors is that it is impossible to erase one’s ride history from the Uber app. This means that if anyone else, like a partner, parent, or friend, has access to someone’s cell phone, they may be able to see that person’s ride history. This is important to keep in mind if confidentiality is needed about transportation history (for example: if someone wants to access a shelter or clinic without their partner knowing).
When requesting an Uber ride, you are able to choose specific pickup and drop-off locations. It may be helpful to set pickup and drop-off locations at a walking distance from one’s home or a shelter or another confidential location. One alternative to using your address as a pickup location is entering the cross-streets near your location, which avoids the need to enter a specific address. You can also cancel a ride request at the last minute for any reason. If you cancel a ride after being matched with a driver, that ride may stay in your ride history.
Although the Uber app does store ride history, it approximates pickup and drop-off locations after the ride is completed. This means that if you use cross-streets for pickups and drop-offs, it will be harder for anyone else with access to your device to know specifically where you were going. Additionally, drivers cannot look back at their ride history to see your address or drop-off location.
Confidentiality around contact information
Uber takes measures to protect both passenger and driver privacy while using Uber. When you request a ride, Uber drivers will be able to see your first name and pickup and drop-off locations. Drivers will never see a passenger’s last name, contact information, or any ratings they leave after a ride.
Passengers and drivers are both assigned temporary phone numbers that can be used to contact each other. These phone numbers cannot be used once the ride is over. If a driver or passenger tries to call or text a number, it will not go through.
Catching the right ride
There are several precautions you can take to ensure you’re getting into the right vehicle with a trusted Uber driver. First, the Uber app will provide you with the driver’s first name, license plate, and car make, model, and color. Always make sure to check that a car’s license plate and description match what is shown on your app before getting in.
In addition, Uber also offers the option to “verify your ride” with RideCheck. You can opt-in for this feature by clicking on the blue shield in the bottom right of the app screen. RideCheck provides a unique four-digit code for each ride. In order to start your ride when the driver arrives, you will have to verbally give them the code, and the driver will have to enter this code into their app. It’s recommended that you communicate the code before getting into the car to ensure you’re being picked up by the right driver. Until the driver verifies that the code is correct, the ride cannot start.
Passengers should not be charged for a ride if a driver refuses to use RideCheck or is not the right person. However, if you receive a cancellation charge in error, you can report this under the “Help” section of the Uber app.
Share your ride with trusted contacts
One useful safety feature in the Uber app is the ability to share your ride and location with up to five trusted contacts. These contacts can be added to the Uber app. This is a great way to choose who is able to see your location, and ensure that someone can see that you arrive at your location safely.
ADT safety agents offer an alternative to 911
Recently, Uber has implemented new features to support survivors’ safety. One of these features is the ability to connect live with an ADT safety agent during a ride, who is able to contact emergency services on behalf of a passenger.
While taking an Uber, clicking the blue shield icon in the Uber app opens several safety features, including options to contact 911, or connect with an ADT safety agent. While it is unclear what kind of training these agents have around survivorship or LGBTQ+ identities, they may provide a safer alternative to calling 911 for survivors who are concerned about interacting with emergency services or law enforcement.
At this moment, it’s unknown whether ADT agents will contact 911 without a passenger’s consent. Since this is vital information for someone deciding whether or not to use the service, especially trans survivors who may be further traumatized by law enforcement, we hope to update this section when we get additional info from Uber.
RAINN hotline for survivors
Another feature has emerged from Uber’s partnership with RAINN: a hotline designed specifically for supporting survivors of sexual violence. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and has a history of providing trans and LGBTQ-affirming care for survivors of sexual assault or dating violence. Uber has partnered with RAINN to create a hotline specifically for survivors who have experienced a safety incident while riding with Uber.
This hotline offers free, confidential crisis support, and connects survivors with short and long-term resources, like therapy, service providers, or assistance with reporting to law enforcement. One drawback to this feature is that a passenger has to report a safety incident to Uber before being able to contact the hotline, which limits survivors’ access to support from this Uber-specific hotline if they do not feel comfortable making a formal report. However, anyone can access RAINN’s general hotline at 800-656-4673. This is a helpful alternative for survivors who do not want to file a report with Uber. On RAINN’s website, you can also chat with a trained support specialist via text. RAINN offers services in Spanish and English.
Accessibility and Uber trips
Many members of the trans and nonbinary community live with one or more disabilities. Uber has anti-discrimination and service animal policies intended to support passengers with disabilities, and some vehicles are equipped for wheelchair users. Unfortunately, Uber no longer has masking requirements for COVID-19, and no option to request to be matched with a driver who will wear a mask. While some people have success verbally requesting that a driver wear a mask, this may not always feel safe or comfortable.
Wearing a well-fitting mask, like an N95 or a KN-95, dramatically reduces the risk of infection, even if the driver isn’t masked. Cracking the window can also improve airflow. Although passengers are no longer required to sit in the backseat, this is another strategy for keeping distance between you and an unmasked driver.
Reporting an incident
Despite these precautions, Elise Maiolino shared that Uber is “not immune to systemic issues” of sexual assault, domestic violence, or discrimination. If you experience harassment or violence while taking an Uber ride, you can make a report directly through the Uber app, even while the ride is still ongoing. This option can be accessed by opening the “account” tab, clicking on “help,” and selecting “help with a trip.” Once you select a ride from your recent trips list, you can report a safety issue. Here, you can report several types of incidents, including discrimination, dangerous driving, accidents, and safety incidents involving a driver or co-rider.
When a passenger makes an incident report, the passenger will never be matched with that same driver again. After reporting an incident, the person who made the report will be contacted by an Uber safety team member to get detailed information about the incident. Although a driver may remember interactions with passengers and be able to connect the dots about who made a report, Uber never shares who submitted the report.
While the repercussions after a report likely depend on the severity of the incident, drivers involved in an incident will be required to complete corresponding safety training modules. Passengers who observe an incident but were not directly involved (for example, if an incident occurred between a driver and another passenger) can also make incident reports.
Uber and NNEDV’s combined efforts to make ridesharing safer for survivors and all riders have generated many strategies that passengers can take to mitigate risks. However, these strategies are not trans-specific, and it does not appear that Uber drivers have required training on queer or trans identities. When using services like Uber, it’s important to be fully informed of potential risks and ways to minimize those risks, including many of Uber’s built-in safety features. Trans survivors may want to be especially cautious about pickup and drop-off locations, ride history that will be stored on your phone, and contacting ADT safety agents while taking an Uber.