news

Explain to me: "What is Uber and is it actually safe to use?"

Women across Australia are accepting lifts home with strangers now, in order to save money on their cab fares.

But the whole arrangement is perfectly safe and above-board.

At least, that’s the message Uber, a smartphone app that connects riders with drivers, is emphasising this week following a slew of concerning media reports about the service’s safety standards.

An Uber driver in India allegedly raped and threatened to kill a 25-year-old passenger on Friday night — and last month, Buzzfeed reported that the company’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, commented that women are “more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers”, allegedly also hinting that he might carry out “oppo research” on journalists.

Taxi organisations are also up in arms about the service, which they say is illegal and unsafe.

So what exactly is Uber — and is it okay/safe to use?

What is Uber? What’s the difference between UberBlack and UberX?

Once they’ve downloaded the Uber app, users can select from different Uber services when booking a ride. UberBlack, the company’s original service, is a high-end, luxury vehicle hire car service, which is normally a little more (read: quite a bit more) expensive than a taxi. UberBlack’s drivers consist of certified chauffeurs.

UberX — which can be up to 50% cheaper than a taxi, according to the company — is a little more controversial, however. While hire car or taxi drivers must legally have specific licences in order to operate, as the Sydney Morning Herald reports, UberX doesn’t have driver requirements that are quite as strict.

In fact, what would appear to be “UberBlack’s slightly cheaper brother company” actually just a series of regular people who’ve passed a few basic screening procedures like police and background checks, have a valid driver’s license with clean driving record and updated insurance policies. But that’s about it.

What are cab companies saying about Uber?

The Chief executive office Australian Taxi  Industry Association, Blair Davies, told Mamamia that the main difference between taxis and UberX is that “ride sharing is basically not licensed and the cars are private, up to nine years old. On the other hand taxis must be inspected by mechanics every four to six months.”

Mr Davies added that there is “no real roadworthy test” for UberX cars, and that Uberx cars can only be tracked through the driver’s phone, which can be shut off.

In contrast, he told Mamamia, “taxis have two or three GPS devices hardwired into their systems” as well as a security camera that cannot be disabled by the driver.

“Taxi systems are known and traceable to the company (And) a medical test must also be performed on divers,” he said. “Doctors look at the physical and mental fitness of the driver and check to see that they are fit to drive a commercial vehicle.”

The Taxi Council of Queensland has also warned would-be Uber passengers of alleged risks associated with the service

“Cashed up companies like Uber use warm and fuzzy words but in reality they are about one thing – making money by exploiting uninsured drivers, exposing the public to risks and lying about their operations,” TCQ chief executive Benjamin Wash told Fairfax Media.

ADVERTISEMENT

Do I need to be worried?

Uber spokesperson Katie Curran brushed off those concerns, telling Mamamia Uber is simply the victim of a “scaremongering” campaign by the taxi industry.

Ms Curran also assured us that the service actually takes the anonymity out of the ride-booking process.

“We’ve disrupted the (taxi) industry, which is an industry that hasn’t changed in a very, very, very long time,” Ms Curran told Mamamia. “We see that they’re doing scaremongering campaign and they’re putting out campaigns against ride-sharing to try to steer people away from using it.”

Ms Curran says UberX drivers are ” people like me and you that go through very thorough screening processes”.

“They have to be over 21, have criminal background checks from the police, an exemplary driving record, they have to have full insurance policies… so every trip is fully covered,” she said. “And the vehicles have to be no older than 2005, four-door.

“So once they’ve passed the background checks we on-board them and train them how to use the app, (and) train them how to do customer service.”

She said that users could see their driver’s picture and rating as soon as he or she had accepted the job.

“The rider rates the driver our of five stars, and the driver rates the rider… so everybody’s on their best behaviour because the anonymity has been taken out (of the process)”, Ms Curran said. “You’re not sort of putting your hand out on the street for someone to have to come pick you up.”

She added that the app also allowed users to share their location and ETA with loved ones by clicking a button within the Uber app.

“They can literally watch you turn-by-turn get home,” she said.

What about my sensitive data?

Physical safety concerns aside, Uber has also come under repeated fire for not being able to protect the sensitive personal data of its users. The New York Times reports that not only does the company keep a detailed personal record of your history and reasons for travel, it has also previously blogged about users’ “glory Rides” – trips made by users between the hours of 10pm and 4am, on Friday and Saturday nights, with return pick up from the same address less than 6 hours later.

The Washington Post has also labelled Uber a “sitting duck for hackers“; the types of sensitive data that the program may keep could be anything from the number of times a week you go to an address that is not your own, to the amount of times between visits to places such as Planned Parenthood or a hospital to have treatment.

This type of data memory has the potential to prove threatening very quickly if it were to end up in the wrong hands.

As Elizabeth Kiefer points out, “consider this: The data might already be able to predict exactly where you’re going from past trips and personal information. There’s nothing comforting about that.”

Do you use Uber or taxis? Which do you prefer?

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. You click, we help. Shooting star illustration.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day.

So just by spending time with Mamamia, you’re helping educate girls, which is the best tool to lift them out of poverty.

Thanks for helping!

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. Girl with pigtails sitting at desk writing in notebook. Row of four books.
Three hands holding books
00:00 / ???