How safe are ride-hailing services in Pennsylvania?


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Millions of people across the country use ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft every day. But watch the news or check social media and you’ll find plenty of horror stories. So how safe are these services?

Back in March, a South Carolina college student was killed after getting into a car she thought was the Uber she called.

In May, a Pittsburgh-based Uber driver was arrested after being accused of holding two women passengers against their will. Fortunately, they were able to escape.

Uber is the biggest ride-hailing service in Pennsylvania. In 2018, it employed 40,000 drivers and logged 40 million rides.

The Public Utility Commission is in charge of regulating all transportation services in the state. It recently completed a review of Uber’s safety policies.

“What we did is over nearly a year took a deep dive into how they bring new drivers on board, what they do in terms of their preliminary background check, and then took it further into how they continue to monitor their drivers and how they deal with safety-related issues and safety complaints that they get,” PUC spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said.

State law requires background checks on every driver when they’re hired, the following year, and every two years after that. The PUC says Uber is doing that. But when a driver is terminated, the PUC says the company should do a better job letting others know so they don’t end up driving for someone else.

“If it’s serious enough that you’re going to remove somebody from your platform because of safety and security concerns, you really should be sharing that information with other transportation providers and also enforcement agencies,” Frederiksen said.

Another area where the PUC says Uber could do better is on the app itself.

“If you’re having trouble in the middle of a ride, you don’t want to be fumbling around on your phone to find the safety toolkit. You want to be able to push a button and get help right away,” said Frederiksen. “So, we made that recommendation and Uber’s in the process of implementing that.”

Michelle Heinbaugh uses Uber. So does her mother, who is in her 70s and doesn’t drive anymore. Michelle is aware of the concerns and takes advantage of the safety tools.

“She notifies myself and my brother that she has started an Uber trip. You don’t have to use it, but it’s an option,” said Heinbaugh. “She uses it and we know, OK, she’s in an Uber now and she has the option to tell us when she has arrived. I find that very comforting.”

Downtown Harrisburg is a hotspot for ride-hailing services, especially along Second Street where there are plenty of bars and clubs. While Harrisburg police say there have been no incidents in the city, they’re keeping a close watch.

“Even in the larger cities where you’re talking about thousands of people using it on a daily event, there’s only a small amount where this actually occurs but are we concerned,” said Captain Gabe Olivera.

But it’s also up to the rider to beware.

“It’s important for any consumer in these kinds of situations, whatever kind of vehicle you’re getting into, to understand that you play a role, too,” said Frederiksen.

The best thing you can do before getting into your Uber or Lyft is to verify it’s the car you ordered. The app describes the car and license plate and provides a photo of the driver. Also, ask the driver “what’s my name” before getting inside. If something doesn’t sit right with you during the ride, trust your instincts.

“You should ask the individual to just pull over, terminate the ride. End it right then and there and use some other method to get to where you’re going,” said Olivera.

“Things happen in today’s world and you have to be cautious,” said Heinbaugh, “It makes me cautious but not scared.”

Many states are also working on legislation requiring ride-hailing vehicles to have illuminated signs, making it easier for riders to identify them. New Jersey’s governor just signed it into law. There’s also legislation in the U.S. Senate.

The PUC plans on performing a similar safety audit for Lyft in the near future.

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