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Uber Launches 911 Panic Button Safety Feature for US Riders, Mandates Background Checks

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Uber Launches 911 Panic Button Safety Feature for US Riders, Mandates Background Checks
  • Upgrades aimed at keeping its US ride-hail customers safe
  • Company said it also will bolster driver screening
  • Announcement an admission that Uber has been falling short on safety

After years of resisting major changes pushed by riders and government regulators, Uber announced upgrades this week it said are aimed at keeping its US ride-hail customers safe.

The mobility company will add an emergency 911 feature akin to a "panic button" - a type of enhanced 911 that connects passengers directly with emergency personnel, and allows them to share their location with the operator. The company said it also will bolster driver screening by mandating annual reviews of background checks to ensure drivers remain in compliance with its standards. And it plans to allow riders to share their trip information with up to five "trusted contacts" on every trip so there are multiple sets of eyes to ensure rides go smoothly, the company said.

The changes, expected to be in place this summer, were unveiled as part of a broad package of changes that CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said represent a push to "double down on safety in our app" and "strengthen our screening process."

"In the past, Uber conducted background check reruns in jurisdictions where required," Khosrowshahi said in a blog post Thursday. "Going forward, we'll proactively rerun criminal and motor vehicle checks each year, regardless of whether there is a legal obligation to do so."

While the changes are billed as proactive, the announcement effectively represents an admission that Uber has been falling short on passenger safety, as Khosrowshahi attempts to repair the company's tarnished image nearly a year after former CEO Travis Kalanick departed.

Uber has been criticized for what regulators have seen as relaxed driver screening standards. The company has resisted fingerprint-based background screening, which is preferred by law enforcement. The company left the Austin when local regulations mandated it - before returning last May. In Maryland, regulators agreed to a less stringent and costly process that both parties agreed could be as or more effective than fingerprinting.

The fears about passenger safety were illustrated most dramatically when an Uber driver allegedly went on a shooting rampage in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2016, killing six, and was reported to have picked up passengers before and during his shooting spree. Driver Jason Brian Dalton did not have a prior criminal record, police said, meaning standard checks would not have disqualified him from the app.

But the incident, in which Dalton was reported to have alarmed passengers with his erratic driver, prompted calls for the type of "panic button" Uber unveiled in India during a furore over sexual assault allegations against a driver there.

At the time, Uber told The Post the feature was necessary in India because of the country's less developed emergency infrastructure, and said it had no plans to bring it to the United States. (As the Post reported, the India version is different because in addition to notifying local authorities, it pings Uber's own emergency response team.)

But despite their delayed arrival, the changes are likely to be welcomed by riders and the localities where Uber operates, given the company's growing footprint in urban mobility. As Uber's ridership has ballooned, reports of sexual assault, dangerous driving and passenger safety concerns have grown.

In addition to the bolstered driver screening, Uber said it is also investing in a system to flag the company when drivers commit criminal offences.

"We will investigate and verify any potentially disqualifying information from public records, such as a new and pending charge for a DUI, to ensure the driver is still eligible to use Uber," Khosrowshahi said.

© The Washington Post 2018


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