Delhi cab rape: Some hard questions Uber needs to ponder over

On Friday night, a 27-year old woman was allegedly raped inside a cab she had booked using the app Uber.

On Friday night, a 27-year old woman in Delhi was allegedly raped inside a cab she had booked using the popular taxi app Uber. The finance professional had hired the cab from Gurgaon to go home. She fell asleep in the back and woke up to find the cab in a secluded area. The driver then went on to sexually assault her and threatened her with dire consequences if she informed the cops. Later he dropped her home and abandoned the vehicle. A case has been filed with the Delhi Police and investigations are on.

Uber India issued a statement post the incident. "We became aware of the incident this morning. Safety is Uber's highest priority and we take situations like this very seriously. We are working with the police as they investigate, and will assist them in any way we can to determine what happened. It is also our policy to immediately suspend a driver's account following allegations of a serious incident, which we have done. In India, we work with licensed driver-partners to provide a safe transportation option, with layers of safeguards such as driver and vehicle information, and ETA-sharing to ensure there is accountability and traceability of all trips that occur on the Uber platform."

But this isn't the first time Uber riders have faced such a situation. Back in 2013, a 20-year old rider was allegedly raped in Washington DC whilst riding with a vehicle booked using Uber and here is another instance of Uber driver sexually assaulting a female passenger in Chicago. Uber calls itself a technology platform and not a transportation company, thereby putting itself in the gray area in cases when its drivers assault passengers. But given that the company calls itself 'the safest ride on the road' and has also been pushing itself as a safer alternative to regular cabs, this is likely to impact the company badly in India, where women's safety is already an issue.

Here are some questions you need to ask yourself before booking that next Uber ride:

Have the driver's credentials been thouroughly checked?

According to Uber's US website, there is a three-step screening process before a driver is hired. In the case above, the driver had used a false identity, so the background verification process falls flat on its face. Moreover, there are no dedicated 'Safety' pages on any of Uber's India-specific microsites. Considering the prevalence of rape cases in India, shouldn't Uber resort to India specific safety measures? This article which talks to Uber drivers in New York City, goes on to state that there is no hiring or training process prior to hiring the drivers. "They need somebody who can get their own cars, fit the best possible GPS, and start driving," says the driver, identified as Tony.

In another instance an Uber driver in San Francisco was accused of verbally and physically assaulting a male passenger. The driver turned out to be a past felon who had served time in prison, who however had cleared Uber's background check process and was hired. If this is the case in the US, we cannot even imagine what happens with driver-hiring in India, where forging documents and assuming false identity is quite easy, as was seen in the case of the Delhi Uber driver. The police have stated on record that Uber did not do any mandatory police verification of the driver before hiring him.

Are local Uber offices tracking my rides?

Log details for the rider were not accessible to the Police as they are stored in the servers based in Uber's New York office. This is another point worth pondering over. Uber rides within India should be easily accessible to authorities considering the number of cases of sexual violence we have seen in the past. With fleet cab services such as Meru Cabs for instance, their offices can even track the speeds at which the drivers are driving and drivers can be reprimanded if they cross their speed limit. We wonder if that is the case with Uber rides?

How do I know that the driver is following the correct route?

Use of a dashboard-mounted GPS system isn't mandatory on some Uber cab rides and that is another bone of contention which the Delhi Police has raised. In the above incident, there was no GPS system in the car. The only link to the driver is the app which the driver has downloaded on his phone. The driver had switched off his GPS-enabled phone before ditching the car on Mathura Road. What can Uber do in such a situation where the driver is unreachable? This is a major loophole that needed to have been considered at the time of starting operations in India. A quick read through this Reddit post will reveal that a lot of drivers do not use dashboard-mounted GPS systems while riding. Should the rider, in that case, constantly keep monitoring the GPS navigation on his or her mobile phone to ensure that the route being followed is the correct route?

What happens in case of emergency? Are there any SOS features for women's safety? 

From reports, it seems like Police authorities have been kept out of the loop in case of emergency situations as they did not have access to the tracking information of the driver or the car when the complaint was filed. The Uber CEO has gone on record in the past, stating that Uber isn't responsible even when any untoward incident happens during a ride. With so many women safety apps in India, wouldn't it make sense to include an in-built SOS feature within the app itself. Looking at the current situation, if you want to inform your friends or close relatives about the cab details, you need to do it manually. As was seen in the case of the victim in Delhi, she did not have the chance or the luxury of time to do that.

For a company which has just closed a second billion dollar-plus funding round, taking its value to an eye-popping $40 billion, these are some questions worth pondering over. Uber cannot shirk responsibility by simply stating that it is not a transportation company.

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