Nobody knows just how many TNC (transportation network company) vehicles are whizzing around town carrying passengers, but the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association, an avowed archenemy of the nascent industry, says it has counted more than 3,000 to date.
We interviewed a number of TNC drivers to hear firsthand what they thought about safety issues, and eventually focused on those who drive for UberX, since they were the ones who most frequently described a lack of attention to driver safety and training within the sign-up process.
Here are the main points, corroborated by the six UberX drivers we interviewed:
UberX has not been inspecting drivers' cars, as required by the California Public Utiltiies Commission (CPUC), but simply reviews vehicle photos supplied by the drivers.
UberX does not observe applicants actually driving before they are approved to work for the company.
UberX applicants receive no training related to safe driving before they are approved.
Other issues emerged as well. Several drivers said that the UberX app, which is provided on a separate cellphone from the driver's personal phone, can be distracting. And two drivers said the ratings that each passenger gives to each driver can lead to unsafe driving, either because of a pressure to chat with riders or to drive faster than is advisable.
Almost all the interviewees said UberX’s process of signing up many drivers at the same time included no scrutiny or assessment of individuals beyond the background checks mandated by the state. One driver described the process as "like a cattle call."
In a series of emails back and forth with KQED, UberX spokesman Andrew Noyes did not provide direct responses to these specific findings, but did volunteer that “Uber has submitted a proposal to the CPUC that addresses some of the issues you’ve outlined and we’re awaiting their approval.”
Accidents get supervisors' attention
On New Year's Eve, while driving for UberX, Syed Muzaffar, 57, of Union City, struck three pedestrians in the Tenderloin, killing 6-year-old Sofia Liu. The girl’s family has since filed a lawsuit against Muzaffar and Uber, claiming the driver app runs afoul of California’s distracted-driving laws. Muzaffar had been convicted of reckless driving in Florida in 2004, a revelation that was the first of several concerning inadequate background checks by UberX. (The company has since announced an upgrade of its vetting process.)
Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the intersection where the New Year’s Eve fatality occurred, told KQED that the incident raised “questions regarding the driver training and selection process for the increasing number of ride-share drivers on our city streets. While emerging driver service apps fulfill an important need for flexible on-demand transportation in San Francisco, we must examine a universal baseline of scrutiny and safety oversight for these services.”
Supervisor Eric Mar, who is organizing the upcoming hearing on March 6, told us “there were questions raised by the Sofia Liu accident and the (Lyft) accident. People want to ensure that drivers are well monitored and there are safety precautions that companies are ensuring. What are the driver training and safety precautions that this new, unregulated industry is adhering to?”
The CPUC has made public safety its raison d'etre for claiming regulatory oversight of the TNCs. In its decision last year giving the ride-service firms sanction to operate in the state, the commission wrote that “protecting and enhancing public safety is the paramount purpose behind regulating this industry. We initiated this rule-making for the sole purpose of determining how TNCs affect public safety.”
Aside from requiring background checks, one way the CPUC tried to address the issue of public safety was by mandating driver training programs. From Page 27 of the agency's decision:
TNCs shall establish a driver training program to ensure that all drivers are safely operating the vehicle prior to the driver being able to offer service. This program must be filed with the Commission within 45 days of the adoption of this decision. TNCs must report to the Commission on an annual basis the number of drivers that became eligible and completed the course.
We obtained these required filings from the CPUC. Below is Uber's, which stands out for its brevity -- just one page, including double spacing and double paragraph breaks. Filing as Rasier, its ride-service subsidiary, Uber submitted under a heading of “Driver Training Program” exactly four paragraphs, with the actual steps the company plans to enhance driver training expressed in two sentences:
Rasier will also recommend that partners with less than five years of driving history take a driver training course at a school listed in the California DMV’s Occupational License Status Information System database. For each California city where Rasier partners operate, Rasier will provide, during the application or onboarding process, a list of three such local driving schools.
We were a little surprised that the company would submit to its regulatory agency a driver safety plan that can fit on a midsize cocktail napkin. So we asked Uber if they had given the CPUC anything else related to driver training. They said, yes, they had submitted additional materials to the CPUC. At our request, the CPUC went back to double-check, then came back to us with nope, that's all there is.
I asked Supervisor Jane Kim what she thought of Uber's skimpy driver-safety filing. She said it didn't surprise her, as Uber's appeal of the CPUC's "very limited regulations" was a "statement in and of itself."
In contrast to Uber's ultra-short filing, both Lyft and Sidecar filed documents describing driver training programs that were a little more extensive. Lyft, for instance, now requires applicants to drive with a "mentor," who assesses candidates' suitability. Nathan Rosquist, 32, who has been driving in the Bay Area for Lyft since January, said he drove with his mentor for 30-40 minutes. The mentor also inspected his car. Lyft says these required ride-alongs have been in place since mid-October.
'You're good to go'
The UberX drivers we spoke to described the company's driver-safety program as perfunctory. Four of the drivers would talk to us only if we agreed to withhold their names, because they were either afraid their insurance companies would find out they drive commercially or they did not want to jeopardize their standing with UberX.
Erika Maldonado, 25, of San Francisco, is a former KQED intern who recently signed up with UberX after the company offered financial incentives to lure away Lyft drivers. Maldonado said there was little if any material about safe driving in Uber's approval process.
“All the training is a video tutorial online that you do at home. Standards for having your car clean, encouraging you to dress your best and look more professional. Some conduct things -- like telling you not to ask for tips or a good rating. And how to use the app.”
Tyler Granlund, 31, of Los Angeles, said in his training, he got “just the basics of how to provide the customers good service and what they expect from the driver.”
"It was like a factory," said a 27-year-old male driver from Oakland. "I went in there and in a five-minute turnaround, I was an Uber driver.”
"I went down there and there were just hundreds of people signing up," said Mikey, a 32-year-old UberX driver from the East Bay. "I see someone, he gives me the phone and asks if I saw the training video. He said, 'You’re all good to go.' ”
Car inspection by photo
The CPUC decision requires TNCs to either conduct a 19-point inspection “prior to allowing the driver to operate the vehicle” or to have the vehicle inspected at a facility licensed by the California Bureau of Automotive Repair. None of the drivers we spoke to had anybody from UberX look at ther cars. Instead, UberX requires drivers to upload photos of their vehicles.
"You have to submit photos of every angle of your car, and interior photos," said Granlund. "Those had to be approved before you could drive.”
The CPUC inspection mandate includes items such as brakes, steering, headlights, seat belts, muffler and exhaust -- things that would be hard to assess, seemingly, from photos.
I asked Eric Mar what he thought about the lack of direct inspection of driver vehicles. “That just highlights how unregulated it is,” he said. “That would make me really nervous, that there’s not a physical inspection.”
As far as judging driving abilities, none of the drivers were observed operating their vehicle by anyone from UberX.
Uber spokesman Noyes said the company is currently in the process of "securing a relationship with an inspection service.”
Are TNCs creating distracted drivers?
One of the drivers we interviewed is a 40-something who lives in San Francisco and has been driving as many as 40-plus hours a week for UberX since before the CPUC rendered its decision last year. She says she is "close to quitting" because she does not believe it's currently possible for TNC drivers to get proper insurance and because she thinks the work is extremely dangerous.
There are a “lot of factors working against” driving safely, she said. "I’m multitasking a lot. I'm engaging in conversations with strangers in my car, trying to navigate correctly to my destination, paying attention to the GPS if I need it and interacting with the app if I need to. Like most drivers, I tend to drive at the most lucrative times, and those are the most dangerous times because there's the most drivers on the road and the most pedestrians. Every single time I drive I either see an accident, the aftermath, or I will see several near-misses."
I asked her if she thought there should be more evaluation of drivers by UberX. "Oh God, yeah," she said. She does not believe the company places an emphasis on safe driving.
"Everything they communicate to the driver is about providing the best, most professional, most convenient, expedient service to the rider." That, she said, can be at odds with traffic laws, encouraging double-parking or blocking traffic in order to give the customer the closest pickup point.
"There's unspoken pressure from Uber to pick the rider up exactly where they are, as opposed to finding the safest place to pull over. The riders often won’t see you or find you easily unless you pull up right to where they are. I see a lot of (ride-service) drivers suddenly stopping in the middle of traffic to pick up a rider. They don't put on their hazards, don’t give drivers any warning. They’re paying attention to their app."
She said the notion that the app encourages distracted driving, as asserted in the lawsuit of Sofia Liu's family, is valid, especially when taken in the context of everything else a TNC driver has to contend with.
"It gives you an audible beep when a ride comes through. Most drivers are going to look at where the ride is coming from and decide if they want it based on where it is. You tap it (to accept). Then you have to look at the location of where the person is, figure out where you are and the quickest way to get to them. If you're a smart, safe driver, you’re going to pull over and look at the map. But the truth is you're not always in a circumstance where you can do that, so you’re doing it while driving and navigating traffic.
"Plus you have strangers in your car who are having a conversation with you and ... that’s an important part of having a good rating."
Two other drivers who have driven for both UberX and Lyft agreed the app is distracting. “With Uber more than Lyft, it creates a distraction because you are using two phones, one to accept a request and another to navigate and call the passenger,” one driver said. “Lyft has a navigation installed in their app so there's less fumbling between phones, but both systems typically lead to drivers looking at their phones. Unless you are pulled over between every request, it is impossible to avoid.”
"You're scrambling between two different phones, various apps, busy streets, etc.,” said another driver. “I'd say probably not the safest.”
The driver from San Francisco also thinks Uber's habit of raising fares in areas with the most demand, called "surge pricing," encourages unsafe driving. Surge pricing comes into play at periods of peak demand, such as on New Year's Eve or during storms.
"When there’s high surge pricing there’s intense incentive to get to the part of town where it’s happening. If you’re in the Sunset and you see that you're going to be paid three or four times better downtown, you want to get downtown as fast as you can. Surge pricing on New Year's Eve was crazy, six times (the regular price) in a four-block radius downtown, and the next block only two times. I can tell you, even as someone who works extra hard to be a super-paranoid defensive driver, when you see surge pricing go on, you want to get to that area the fastest you can, and you’re paying attention on the phone where the surge pricing is."
City officials want local regulations
Since everyone has their favorite story of a San Francisco cab driver re-enacting the chase scene from “Bullitt,” you may be wondering by now if taxis are any better. To be fair, a couple of our UberX interviewees who were very critical of the company's lack of attention to driver safety also said they've seen taxis driving as recklessly as or worse than TNCs. But one thing to keep in mind: There are just 1,900 licensed cabs in the city, while no caps exist on the number of ride-service drivers.
Cab drivers are also required to go to “taxi school” before being certified. But Christiane Hayashi, director of Taxis and Accessible Services for the SFMTA, said that until now, no discernible standards for taxi schools have been in effect.
So, earlier this month the agency rolled out a new set of taxi-school standards. These stipulate course length, instructor credentials, curriculum and testing. Courses must last a minimum of 28 hours, and the SFMTA has laid out specific time requirements for topics like maps/routes/locations, the California Vehicle Code and traffic safety, pedestrian safety, and taxi rules and regulations.
This is the sort of requirement that city officials would like to see applied to ride-service firms.
"I believe (TNCs) fulfill a need," said Supervisor Kim. "But I believe that regulations (the city) holds taxicabs to will make them better. They should be held to the same standards that our taxi drivers are."
Mar said his March hearing will address “what authority we have locally to protect public safety” when it comes to TNCs.