A pending lawsuit against Uber says the smartphone car service is partially responsible for a little girl's death by encouraging illegal distracted driving. We looked at Uber's internal training materials, and it's easy to see how it could keep your eyes off the road.
The above video is clipped from a long instructional program that new Uber drivers are required to view before they can drive. It covers the basics: how to pick up rides, how to dress well (ties!) how to get high ratings (carry bottled water!), repeated admonishments against accepting tips, and strong warnings against smoking—because remember, Uber drivers are their own bosses.
But what's most interesting in light of the Sophie Liu suit is just how much manual interaction Uber requires. To get picked up, it only takes a tap or two, but to do the actual driving, a whole litany of presses. This seems like a possible violation of California state law regarding driving while using a wireless device:
23123. (a) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.
In the video, most of the app interactions seem to be made while the vehicle is stopped—though this could very well be for the purpose of easier filming. What's missing from the video is any warning against using the app while in motion (for either legal or safety reasons), which seems almost impossible, and in my experience using Uber, happens frequently. Cues like hitting the "Arriving Now" button are particularly glaring—does Uber expect its drivers to approach a potential customer, pull over, tap "Arriving Now," and then pull back onto the road, every single time? Of course not.
But the law does. Granted, there are already plenty of distractions in a modern car sans cell phone—adjusting the AC, changing the radio station, or even using a traditional GPS. But the law is the law, and the law says keep your hands off an eyeball-craving smartphone while you're driving. An opinion out of the Superior Court of Fresno County even fingers phone map use specifically:
This case requires us to determine whether using a wireless phone solely for its map application function while driving violates Vehicle Code section 23123. We hold that it does. Our review of the statute's plain language leads us to conclude that the primary evil sought to be avoided is the distraction the driver faces when using his or her hands to operate the phone. That distraction would be present whether the wireless telephone was being used as a telephone, a GPS navigator, a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails.
As you can see in the video, Uber's app is designed to include all the complications of these features, and much more. Only it earns you money. Maybe Uber could redesign its app to comply with safety laws—or is it easier for the company to distance itself from its drivers, wash its hands, and let Free Market Jesus take the wheel?
Uber declined to comment on this story.