Late Saturday night, Bridget Todd, a writer, activist, and former lecturer at Howard University, tweeted at taxi dispatch startup Uber that she'd been choked by the driver she'd ordered on Uber's smartphone app—apparently because he was angry at her interracial relationship. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's response, in an emailed warning to his PR team: "make sure these writers don't come away thinking we are responsible when these things do go bad…"
.@Uber_DC I just took an Uber home. The driver put his hands around my throat and choked me. His name was "Dave E".— BridgetMarieInDC (@BridgetMarie) September 15, 2013
According to more than 30 tweets from Todd about the alleged choking (screengrabs below), driver "David E" grabbed her out of his car by the throat because she was kissing her husband (in one tweet she refers to him as her boyfriend) in the back of the vehicle.
Todd believes that the incident was racially provoked. She says the driver "appeared to be of African descent" and "def. became enraged after we kissed," adding, "He was unhappy that I kissed my white husband in the back of his car."
Although Todd seemed sober enough to tweet about the incident in a clear and understandable manner around 3am Sunday morning, she later acknowledged that she and her husband were both inebriated at the time. "We both were admittedly pretty drunk, which doesnt help for reaction time or just ability to grasp/process situations."
But Uber's telling a different story. In a statement to Valleywag, the company claims the incident "was provoked by the passenger."
It is our standard policy to de-activate drivers and clients as soon as an individual is accused of criminal activity. In situations where disputes occur between drivers and clients, we act swiftly to provide all parties with the information and support they need to pursue their legal rights to the fullest extent of the law.
Regarding the events that occurred this weekend, our understanding is that an argument broke out between the driver utilizing Uber’s technology and one of his passengers - an argument that was provoked by the passenger. The police approached the scene and neither party elected to press charges. If legal action is taken, Uber remains committed to helping appropriate law enforcement agencies in any way possible.
(I've reached out to Todd for comment on Uber's version of events.)
But despite the even-handed public statement, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick made his attitude towards aggrieved customers clear in an email to his press team, on which I was copied. (It's unclear if this was intentional: he tends towards passive-aggression.)
In the email, Kalanick blamed the media for thinking that Uber is "somehow liable for these incidents that aren't even real in the first place." Kalanick also stressed that Uber needs to "make sure these writers don't come away thinking we are responsible even when these things do go bad."
That kind of dismissive response from a CEO is troubling considering the number of allegations Uber has faced, in Washington D.C. alone.
A lawsuit in February accused an Uber driver of spitting on and slapping a passenger, after spewing an "anti-American, anti-gay rant." In March, the U.S. Attorney for Washington D.C. decided not to prosecute allegations of sexual assault against a 20-year-old passenger by a driver ordered through Uber's app. In response to Todd's story, a passenger in D.C. tweeted that a driver requested ID twice before he would pick up a car of black, male customers.
Uber doesn't employ any drivers directly, but rather establishes partnerships with local taxi, livery car, and limo companies. Its terms of service agreement denies any liability in connection with those third-party transportation providers.
For Kalanick, whose vocal customers helped his company break into new markets, his responsibility seems to end with that protection from liability.
Kalanick likes to rail against perceived enemies to the disruptive force of his app: At first it was anti-innovation city governments that wanted to review the potential impact to constituents and incumbent industries before legalizing changes to public transportation. Then it was the taxi cartels and powerful black car lobby. Then it was competitors like Lyft and Sidecar, who exploited the same legal ambiguities as Uber once did.
Now, it seems, Kalanick's more concerned with "these writers" than with having his $3.5 billion company, which added $258 million to its coffers, take responsibility "when these things do go bad" for Uber customers.
Update 2: A representative for Uber emailed the driver's account of Saturday's incident. Despite this account of events, when I spoke to Todd earlier today by phone, she said Uber's customer service was very helpful and removed the driver from its service.
The driver picked up the user, Bridget, along with two other riders, at 9th & U Streets NW. User was highly intoxicated. She started the trip by throwing an empty beer can out of the vehicle, which she got from inside of her purse. She said the beer was leaking out into her purse. Driver explained that she could get him a citation for having alcohol in the vehicle. She stated don't worry she would pay for it. Driver also expressed concerns about the beer leaking in the vehicle and making a mess. As trip continued, user was conversing with other 2 people in the vehicle. The other woman remarked at one point "I've never seen you this drunk."
Driver dropped one person off, the other woman, in Mt. Pleasant and continued. User began making out with her male friend. Driver was not bothered by this except that her shoes were dug into the seat. Driver asked nicely if she could take her shoes off the seats please. She complied. 2 minutes later she had both feet in the seat turned completely backwards in his lap. She had straddled him while he was faced forward. Drivers said "Ma'am I just asked you not place your feet in my seats, please take your feet out of my seats."
User began to curse at the driver. She said "you work for me," among other things, and asked me to stop the vehicle so she could get out. Driver said "gladly" and pulled over. As she got out she used both hands and slammed the car door with great force. Driver exited the vehicle to assess if there was any damage to the door and the seat. She continued cursing, ranting and raging towards the driver in a threatening manner. User was hitting at the driver, attempted at one point to knock his driving cap off. The driver pushed her away from himself. She continued to come forward cursing. The man with her tried to hold her back but had a hard time. At this point a police woman came by and the user calmed down. The officer spoke with all parties. No report was made and no damage was noticed. The user and man walked to their destination.
Update: Todd has made her Twitter account private, but here are screenshots of her tweets:
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