The next time you hop in an UberX—one of the transit startup's fancy gypsy cabs run by unlicensed drivers—you'll notice a new "Safe Ride Fee" added to your fare. It's only a dollar, but since when do we have to pay extra to not get raped?
The question of who exactly is driving you in the "sharing economy" has come up, notably, a few times in the past year. Last month, The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi recounted a particularly unsettling encounter with an Uber driver:
At the end of the ride, the Uber driver asked me if I had been near Lincoln Center a few hours earlier. I said I hadn't, since I didn't remember walking past there. Then he took out his iPad. "Really?" he asked. "Because you look like this girl." He turned the iPad around to face the back seat. To my surprise, I saw a full-length, close-up picture of me, wearing the workout clothes I'd had on an hour previously.
Uber has promised (nebulous) background checks and screening processes before, but they're clearly inadequate—maybe a company with such a thick libertarian streak thought the market would simply weed out creeps and convicts.
So after years of operation, Uber decided to clamp down—and also decided to pass the cost of safely, responsibly running a business onto the consumer:
This fee supports the increased costs associated with our continued efforts to ensure the safest platform for Uber riders and drivers. Those include an industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks, driver safety education, current and future development of safety features in the app, and insurance.
When I asked Uber for more information about how it was spending the surcharge, I received no response.
There are two things about this plan that seem "not good."
It seems "not good" that safety is considered worthy of a surcharge, and not an obvious, absolutely minimum requirement for using the service to begin with. Twitter users made the point very well, and repeatedly:
Can't wait for @uber's delivery service. Maybe for an extra dollar, they'll make sure it isn't poison!
— i 3 sf (@mat) April 22, 2014
@mat imagine restaurants charging a buck extra specifically for soap for their employees to wash their heads with.
— Jesse Atkinson (@jsatk) April 23, 2014
— Claes Bell (@ClaesBell) April 22, 2014
Imagine: Seamless has implemented a $1 fee to make sure your beef with broccoli wasn't exposed to feces. And so forth. But the fee is even more galling when you think about what it's offering in return: not shit-free soup, but not coming into bodily harm or mortal danger. There's a very basic sense here that this is not a premium feature, or something that should cost more—even a perfunctory and basically trivial extra buck. It's not about the money.
There's also the (perhaps more) disturbing conclusion you can make from this announcement—were all our rides before now unsafe? Was there a chance we were going to get assaulted, or molested, or raped, or murdered by our un-screened UberX drivers, the ones that once cost a dollar less? Uber seems to be tacitly admitting—by making safety an added feature—that up until now its service was inherently unsafe. I asked Chris Dolan, an attorney currently representing the family of a young girl struck dead by an Uber driver on New Year's Eve, about the ramifications of this charge:
This is but another example of Uber's greed. They are seeking to avoid having to act like other businesses and provide services which provide common consumer protections such as vehicle inspections, drug tests, insurance, etc. Uber wants the passengers to pay for this so that they can maintain their profit margin. By doing this Uber keeps its 20% off the top and makes a rider pay extra to have a modicum of safety. This is greedy. Uber should use some of its tremendous profit to make sure that their customers have safe vehicles with proper insurance. This would be like Macy's charging you a dollar when entering the store to pay for sweeping the floors and making sure objects are properly placed on shelves so they do not fall on [your] head. Taxis couldn't do this without approval of the regulating body.
The point about taxis is an important one—Uber considers any regulatory apparatus an ideological enemy because so few of them would ever abide this bullshit. But consumers probably will, which is why Uber is willing to throw yet another anti-consumer sucker punch. CEO Travis Kalanick is a very, very smart man. He knows how to run a company. He also knows our addiction to convenience makes us the perfect slow-boiled frogs. Uber is a tremendously successful, rapidly growing startup premised on laziness—and he knows that if we can't be bothered to just ride a bike, how many people are really going to worry about this?
Maybe some, when they realize the it's possible this extra charge is only buying you the illusion of a safe driver—an investigation by Chicago's NBC 5 news station found plenty of unsavory people behind the wheel, even after Uber's "industry-leading background check process."
NBC5 Investigates went undercover, hiring UberX drivers to take us to some of Chicago's most popular landmarks — and found not a single driver knew his way around the city.
NBC5 then ran background checks on each of the drivers and discovered ticket after ticket — for speeding, illegal stops and running lights. One driver had 26 traffic tickets, yet still passed Uber's background check.
"I have a three-page rap sheet," said California reformed criminal Beverly Locke, who agreed to help NBC test the system.
Would $2 extra do the trick?