Mothers always say never to get in a stranger’s car, but that’s exactly what many students are doing.
According to a Chronicle poll of 508 students, 63 percent of upper school students have used Uber or have an Uber account, an online, app-driven car-for-hire service in which drivers provide their own vehicles.
The app is particularly popular among partygoers.
“It means nobody gets stuck being the designated driver,” Paul* ’14 said. “You can go to a party and drink and have a good time without worrying about parking or needing to find somebody to come and get you. Or even if you’re not drinking and are just out doing stuff and you need a ride fast, then you can call an Uber.”
For 99 percent of students who use Uber, convenience is the primary attraction.
“They’re just a lot easier to get hold of [than taxis],” Kate Goodman ’15 said. “You don’t have to worry about having cash on you or paying right then, because your credit card information is already in the app. Plus, now they’re relatively close to being the same price as taxis.”
Several students cite cost as an important factor, and 50 percent believe that Uber is cheaper than taxis. Others disagree, saying that although they still use the service, it is more expensive.
The company states on its website that UberX prices are 10 percent lower than taxi prices. According to an informal test conducted by a Wall Street Journal tech writer, in which teams in six cities took more than 30 rides comparing taxis and other ride-sharing apps, the cost of an UberX was on average approximately 20 percent higher than that of a taxi. The study contributed this gap to the higher rates Uber charges during rush hour, called ‘surge charges,’ when drivers are in greater demand. During non-rush hour times, however, the study found that UberX was cheaper than both regular taxis and the competitor app Lyft. In Los Angeles, Uber says a ride from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica will cost $15.83 in an UberX, compared to $26.80 in a normal taxi.
Despite its widespread use, Uber is not without controversy. Since it is technically not a taxi service but a technology company, the business operates outside the usual regulations. The easiest position to apply for is that of an UberX driver, for which applicants must prove that they are a licensed driver with a safe car and submit to a background check.
There have been several cases in which drivers with criminal pasts or a poor driving record were hired. In the most well-publicized, a driver with a prior conviction of reckless driving hit and killed a 6-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. There have also been allegations of sexual harassment of passengers.
Sally* ’16 said she felt uncomfortable using the service after an encounter with an Uber SUV driver who behaved inappropriately.
“The Uber driver was very enthusiastic when we first got in the car, saying things like ‘Hi girls, I’m you’re new best friend,’” she said. “He was playing really loud club music and kept saying ‘You girls are my girls, you’re mine.’ He offered us whiskey, and things just kept getting creepier.”
Sally said that at one point the driver insisted on pulling the car over to take photos.
“We said ‘Oh no, it’s fine, we can just take them ourselves, but he was like ‘No,’” she said. “So he took a few photos and then gave my friend her phone back and continued to drive. It was so weird.”
Feeling uncomfortable, Sally and her friends had the driver take them to CVS and told him that one of their parents would pick them up. The driver, though, wouldn’t leave them alone.
“He pulled over to the side and said ‘No, only one girl get out with me and we’ll go to CVS. Just one,’” she said. When they refused to split up, he insisted on coming with them. “I was walking a little behind the rest of my friends and so he came up to me and grabbed me and started hugging me. He kissed my head and said ‘You’re my girl now.’ He was like ‘Since I’m driving you girls, you need to do me a favor. You owe me something.’”
Running to the back of the store, one of Sally’s friends called her mother and had the group picked up, though not before the driver gave Sally a box of chocolates he’d bought. She decided not to report the incident to Uber or the police because she was afraid that her parents would forbid her to use Uber.
“I didn’t want to tell my mom the entire story because Uber is very convenient, and I’d taken Ubers so many times without that happening,” Sally said. “If I’m with my friends, they’re going to want to take an Uber. I didn’t want to tell her because then she’d freak out and be so overprotective of me. So I didn’t report it and thought about it for a really long time and all my friends were telling me to report it, but then it got to a point where it was too late and I felt like I couldn’t.”
Although she still occasionally takes Uber cars, Sally said she does so only with friends and always feels uncomfortable in them.
In addition to issues surrounding drivers, Uber detractors say that the company’s insurance policy is insufficient. Uber’s website states that if a driver’s personal insurance policy fails to cover an accident, then their coverage is capped at $50,000 per individual per incident for bodily damage, $100,000 per incident total for bodily injury and $25,000 per incident for property damage. The issue, critics say, is that the insurance industry routinely excludes using personal policies for coverage in commercial use.
Services like Uber respond that claims are still getting through on personal policies, to which some opponents counter that is only because those insurance companies don’t know that the accident took place during a commercial drive.
“Taxi insurance provides coverage on a 24 hour, seven day per week basis, regardless of the use of the vehicle,” William Rouse of Los Angeles Yellow Cab said. “The public is always protected by taxi insurance. What we know now from Uber’s insurance is that there are major gaps in coverage and the vehicles are on the road uninsured putting the public at risk for major parts of the day.”
Regardless of the legal issues, the majority of students say they’ve had positive experiences with Uber and are unaware of any controversy.
“I’ve got places to go and things to do,” Nico Lubkeman ’15 said. “Uber helps me do them.”
*Names have been changed