This year, Austin Police have gotten at least seven reports of sexual assaults by drivers for transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber or Lyft.
That’s one reason some members of the Austin City Council are pushing for tougher regulations for these companies – including requiring drivers to have fingerprint background checks. Right now, the companies conduct background checks that aren’t verified by fingerprints.
At 2:45 a.m. on April 25, an Austin Police officer responded to the Callaway House on 22nd Street, an off-campus residence hall near UT Austin. According to the police report, which was heavily redacted to protect the survivor’s identity, someone who was crying and shaken up met an officer outside of the building. The person said their Uber driver sexually assaulted them.
Since April, there have been six other reports of alleged sexual assaults by TNC drivers in Austin – five against Uber drivers and two against Lyft drivers.
In that same time period, there’ve been three reports of alleged sexual assaults by traditional cab drivers. It’s one reason Emily LeBlanc wants fingerprint-based background checks for drivers. LeBlanc is director of community advocacy at Safe Place, the sexual assault and domestic violence prevention group. Cab drivers already go through a fingerprint background check.
At an Austin City Council meeting in October, LeBlanc said Safe Place has worked with four survivors in the last three months who were assaulted by a TNC driver.
“In each of those cases, the victim called a TNC after drinking alcohol so as to not drive intoxicated,” she told the council. “It horrifies me that in a woman’s attempt to be safe, she might instead be assaulted.”
Uber did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with KUT.
In public testimony, the company has stood behind its current background check system and argues fingerprint background checks will add an extra burden, especially for part-time drivers. Lyft says it will not operate in cities that require fingerprint background checks.
One way Uber has responded to the debate at city hall is through advertising. In one ad, the company promotes itself as a safe option home – especially for women.
“As a woman, Uber really makes me feel safe. For a girl in her mid-twenties, traveling by yourself is really nice,” the ad says.
LeBlanc says she finds the ads offensive.
“I don’t think Uber or Lyft want rapists driving for them,” LeBlanc says. “However, I think it’s irresponsible to put commercials on TV advocating that this is a safe option for young women, knowing what they know."
LeBlanc isn’t the only person questioning Uber’s promotional style. Last month, two women filed a lawsuit in California against the company. Both women were sexually assaulted by their Uber drivers. They chose to call an Uber after they had been drinking. Jeanne Christensen, one of the lawyers representing the women in the lawsuit, says Uber is misleading customers.
“It’s misleading on the company’s part by intentionally marketing to women and to people who have been drinking when the company knows that it has not thoroughly checked the background of these drivers,” Christensen says.
Earlier this month, Uber filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that, because the women agreed to Uber’s terms of service, they do not have a claim.
Back in Austin, six of the seven sexual assault reports involving Uber or Lyft are suspended, and one is still open. A spokesman with APD says suspended doesn’t mean the cases are closed – officers could be waiting for evidence to be processed – or they’re having trouble getting in touch with victims.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo also did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but when asked about the reported sexual assaults by KXAN, Acevedo said people who are quote, “apt to commit a crime, look for easy targets.”
“You should never feel 100 percent safe,” he told KXAN. “You should be aware, and more importantly I always talk about, don’t be getting publicly intoxicated. It makes you really a target for people to really take advantage of you.”
UT Austin Professor Noel Busch-Armendariz thinks about these issues daily. She studies sexual assault. Busch-Armendariz says while there’s often a correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault, causation shouldn’t be linked to victims.
“You would never be responsible for somebody else sexually assaulting you because they’ve made the decision to make that happen,” Busch-Armendariz says. “It’s easier to point to the behavior that can easily be criticized, and that becomes very victim-blaming and that silences the victim from coming forward.”
Acevedo did not respond to requests to discuss this issue.
Both Uber and Lyft automatically suspend any driver accused of sexual assault until a police investigation is complete, but LeBlanc says more could be done to keep the community safe.
“Sometimes that means going above and beyond what is required of us by law to do the right thing because it’s the right thing even if it costs us money or makes our jobs a little more difficult,” she says.
Since LeBlanc spoke with KUT News, Uber created a new Safety Advisory Committee and launched a new feature called Safety Net. It allows you to share your ride details with five contacts. LeBlanc says that’s great, but it’s not a substitute to thorough background checks.
LeBlanc also suggests another addition for ridesharing companies: a feature that allows passengers to specifically request a female driver.
“I would love to not have to worry about that, and I would love to have that option when I don’t want to drive my car, and I would feel safer knowing that women are far less likely to be perpetrators of sexual assault than males,” she says.
It’s unclear how Uber feels about this idea. They did not respond to requests for comment. The City Council is expected to vote on the proposed regulations Thursday.