One woman’s story of a terrifying taxi ride revealed on Twitter this week is an apt reminder that when it comes to rideshare apps, we are never as safe as we assume or deserve to be
We all know that on-demand taxi apps have a major problem with regulating their drivers – but it’s only when that problem is staring us in the face that we can really be aware of its consequences.
And so it is for one woman in Texas recently, who found herself on the receiving end of the most terrifying ride of her life.
Children’s author Kelly Barnhill hailed a Lyft cab from Houston airport to a city hotel at around 7.30pm last Sunday. Soon into the drive, the man driving her remarked on her “pretty eyes”. He then took her on a wildly circuitous countryside route where there was zero phone reception (apparently because of “bad traffic”).
It’s clear from Barnhill’s account that she likely avoided a very dark outcome due to her quick-witted, careful response (which, as an ordinary paying passenger, she absolutely shouldn’t have been called upon to execute).
Here’s an overview of her story:
In order to carve out an escape route from her increasingly desperate situation, Barnhill conjured up a convoluted story about having a very demanding work boss. She complained in length about this imaginary figure, and mentioned that he knew where she was at all times. He was probably tracking her, she said, and listening in on her via her work phone.
She told the driver this fictional boss would be expecting her to check in at any minute, to account for her delay.
At that, the driver abruptly turned round and “told me that the traffic was probably low enough by now to take the freeway”. Soon after, he delivered her to her hotel, and she got out – terrified and shaken by the encounter.
Later, Barnhill found she had been charged $94 (around £72) for a ride which should have cost $30 (£23).
On lodging a complaint, Lyft waived the fee but gave Barnhill a series of generic, and very unsatisfactory, responses. None of these appeared to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation she had been in.
As Barnhill points out, the driver was either predatory or trying to con her into a huge fee; but since she didn’t know either way, naturally she was terrified. And crucially, she took it upon herself to negotiate her way out of the situation (she was the only one who could), as gender conditioning around being polite, careful and accommodating kicked in. She took the driver’s horrifying behaviour upon herself to “iron over”:
Barnhill’s story has since gone viral, prompting thousands of retweets and women who’ve shared their own stories of deeply disturbing cab rides.
Lyft has now fired the driver in question (although he’s still apparently listed as working for Uber), and, in a statement to the publication Indy100, branded his behaviour “troubling and unacceptable”.
But it’s not enough. Barnhill’s account is no random horror story: it could have happened to any one of us. As she points out, rideshare apps such as Uber and Lyft are all about convenience; but that comes at a cost of making their passengers vulnerable. Most of the time, we’re not aware of our vulnerability; but it only takes one ride to change that.
Both companies and others like them are now launching a series of measures to improve the safety of their services. But without proper regulation, it’s still down to the passenger, ultimately, to safeguard him or herself.
Official advice from Lyft in Barnhill’s situation is to order the car to stop and get out. But she was in the middle of the countryside, after dark, without reception: hardly a reassuring scenario. When she did regain coverage, she was too scared to call the police; she just wanted to arrive at her hotel, and get out of the car.
As these companies continue to grow, it’s imperative that they make the safety of their passengers a priority not just in words but via actions, too. There’s also an urgent need for greater transparency when it comes to sexual harassment and assaults associated with each service.
Otherwise, as Barnhill’s story so clearly shows, we develop a dangerous sense of complacency that we deserve, but is in no way a reality.
Main image: Modelled photo, Getty