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Article by Susie Kahlich | Pretty Deadly Self Defense

Last week, I took an Uber to an appointment. According to the app, I would arrive 10 minutes early. When going to this office in the past, I’ve walked, biked, ridden public transit, and taken a taxi. I know all the routes. The driver was chatty and we started on a typical route with the roads surprisingly clear. Then he turned off the main road to take the side streets. 

I wasn’t particularly alarmed but I did feel uncomfortable — we have a unit dedicated exactly to this scenario in Pretty Deadly Self Defense, so I had an action plan should anything go wrong. But the driver was unnecessarily prolonging the trip by 10 minutes (according to the app’s own calculations), just so he could keep talking to me. It’s been a while since this has happened to me. I had almost forgotten this feeling of being trapped

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Image source:

This has happened before to a lot of women, not just in Ubers, but in Lyfts, in Grabs, and even in regular taxi cabs. It’s not necessarily even sexual, although it is definitely gendered. Distress and discomfort can come from just feeling obliged to answer questions to a stranger who already knows where you live or work. 

Taking action in this situation is not so simple. Clicking on Uber’s Safety button, the app doesn’t offer much. The Share My Trip feature allows a friend or family member can watch the route tracker. But if I had been watching this trip for a friend, I might assume construction or a traffic jam due to the rain — we were driving parallel to the original route, and there could be a million very banal reasons to take what looks like, on my app, a slight detour. 

I could send a message via the Report Safety Issue feature. I would get a message thanking me for reporting the issue in return, and a follow up call, neither of which really solve my problem. The Safety Center shows information about Community Guidelines, Uber’s driver screening process, and professional organizations for post-trauma or legal support, insurance options, naming “trusted contacts”, or calling for emergency help via a private security company. 

The Lyft app offers the same although the Emergency link, after 10 seconds, will send a signal to local police, also via a private security company. It’s not transparent the signal is classified — emergency responders depend upon that classification. Assuming it is classified as high priority, it still takes a responding unit an average of seven minutes to arrive on the scene. 

Seven minutes is a long time to be trapped in a car with someone. And it’s a very long time when you’re being threatened with violence or, worse, fending off an attack. Seven minutes is an eternity of you’re being raped, although it’s no time at all if you’re killed. A lot can happen in seven minutes. 

The problem with these safety features is that they only provide ways of calling for help, providing users with a vague sense that someone will eventually do something. But the whole reason a truly malevolent driver rolls up the windows, locks the doors, and drives off piste is because he knows – and female riders know – that no one can hear you scream. 

The safety features don’t reflect the reality of real-time panic or fear. It’s true that harsh braking may not be “top of mind” when your ride drops you at an important meeting that you’re walking right into. But it’s not “top of mind” issues that are at play when a person feels threatened or in fear of being physically harmed or killed. It’s survival. 

A user can make a report and she’ll be refunded, contacted by the support team, and assured that she won’t be matched with that driver ever again. But she still has had to go through the experience. None of the safety responses indicate any plan to reduce the long-term cost to the victim. While post-trauma support alleviates the cost, it does not eliminate it. On average, sexual assaults translate into individual costs of more than $1 million over the lifetime of the victim. In incidents through ride-hailing apps, who pays for that post-trauma support? 

Meanwhile the driver may still out there driving. Who knows how many times he continues assaulting, or just creeping on, passengers before another woman reports it – because women don’t actually feel comfortable reporting it. No matter how strongly Uber or Lyft, et al. encourages users to report incidents, more often than not, users feel so endangered from the exchange, they simply delete the app. 

Uber made history by making their study on sexual violence and rider safety open source, and their solutions as well, from fitting out their ride hailing app with safety features to providing sexual violence awareness training to their drivers, to training and empowering safety support teams around the world. They’ve now become industry standard. 

However, when women answer questionnaires and surveys about sexual assault and violence, there is stigma associated not only with the subject itself, but also with the answers. Only a small percentage of respondents are willing to speak frankly about their experiences, skewing the data. As Uber says about it’s own safety report, it’s hard to solve a problem if you can’t see it. But their in-app safety solutions and even pre-screening and reporting measures still don’t seem to see the reality of user experiences or safety needs in the moment. 

What I realized I was looking for in the Uber app on that ride is exactly the kind of information we teach in our Pretty Deadly Self Defense Taxi Unit: I wanted advice. How do I get out of this? What if I tell him to stop and let me out, and he locks the doors instead? What can I do right now?

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Susie Kahlich | Self-defense for women

We provide all our users with practical information for the scenarios above, from safely cutting a ride short to de-escalating an angry driver to worst-case scenarios of being taken to an off-grid location. Since space is so constrained in a moving vehicle, none of the solutions we offer are based on physical techniques. Instead, our solutions inform action plans that can be executed easily and immediately. 

Ride share companies have already innovated both mobility and opportunities for economic empowerment for local economies. They have the potential to be true innovators in user safety too, by providing practical, pragmatic, user-focused solutions with actionable, effective information that can be used right away. 

We’d love to share our expertise and work with Uber and other ride-sharing apps to help ensure the short- and long-term safety of all passengers and drivers, and make sure that ride-hailing and ride-sharing continues to be the option people feel safe to use.

Article written by Susie Kahlich | Pretty Deadly Self Defense

Check out more of our guest articles from our Partner Network here.

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