Uber makes changes amid swarm of criticism over rider safety

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Uber users who encounter uncomfortable situations such as erratic driving or invasive questioning will soon be able to report the offense in real time to safety specialists.

The function, soon to be available in a section of the ride-hailing app called the safety tool kit, can alert Uber to a problem without the need to involve authorities, the company said Thursday. That will help riders address safety issues they may encounter on trips that don’t rise to the level of an emergency.

“The core principle for us here is, underreporting is a big issue in every industry and we want to be able to help with that,” Sachin Kansal, Uber’s head of safety products, said in an interview. “If a user has a bad experience, we want to hear about that.”

It’s part of a suite of initiatives Uber announced on Thursday aimed at keeping riders safe.

Uber has faced increased scrutiny of its safety practices in recent months as some critics complain the company hasn’t done enough to protect both riders and drivers who use the app. Many riders have alleged sexual harassment and other types of misconduct, sparking lawmaker scrutiny.

A Washington Post investigation found that Uber prioritizes liability concerns over safety, prompting Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to demand answers from Uber on its handling of safety incidents.

“Uber has repeatedly marketed itself as a way of ensuring a safe ride home after a night of drinking,” he wrote. “If marketing your company as providing safe rides for young, intoxicated women is going to be part of your business model, then it is especially crucial that you ensure that these rides are in fact safe. Otherwise, these advertisements serve as a signal to sexual predators that driving for Uber is an effective way to prey on vulnerable young women.”

Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic California legislator who introduced a successful bill aimed at classifying ride-hail drivers as employees, said this week that she also planned to introduce legislation in December aimed at protecting riders and holding the companies accountable, she said, for their inattention to safety lapses.

Lyft has also faced criticism over safety features that passengers say have traditionally been buried inside a labyrinth of menus. That company announced a suite of safety changes – such as mandatory driver education and in-app notifications if trips go far off track – this month.

Uber has already adopted safety features including Ride Check, where it automatically alerts riders and drivers when trips have gone too far off course. It has also added the ability to share trip locations with contacts for live tracking of rides.

Uber said Thursday it is launching the additional safety-focused features with varying rollout times and locations: the new on-trip reporting function will be launched in half the country next month, according to Kansal.

Drivers are already required to snap selfies periodically to ensure that they are who they claim to be on the app. Now, Uber will require them to blink, smile or turn their heads to better verify their identity.

Ride verification is another focus: users will be able to opt into a system where their ride would begin only once they’ve provided a PIN to a driver, who would have to enter the number correctly to proceed. Users could choose to activate the PIN feature at night or all the time. Currently, the app prompts riders to check the license plate.

Uber says it will unveil an “ultrasound” feature to transmit the PIN wirelessly in coming months.

The company is also rolling out limited access to text-to-911, allowing riders to transmit trip details such as the car’s make and model, location and license plate number to authorities with an auto-populated message. Uber says the feature would be available in cities that allow text-to-911. The company added a “panic button” — an option to call 911 from within the app — last year to an on-screen area in the safety tool kit, where the new features will reside.

“The design and integration of these features into the [user interface] plays a huge role,” Kansal said. “The number one decision that we made at a company level is, ‘it is going to be a button on the map, and you can drive awareness to it.’ “

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