Amid sexual assault concerns, Lyft tries to reassure riders with safety measures

Lyft said an in-app 911 feature is now available to riders. But its other two announcements were promises for the future: It has partnered with anti-sexual assault nonprofit RAINN to create a mandatory safety exercise for driver applicants, and it is planning to add a feature to detect unexpected delays on trips later this year. Source: Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images

As it faces fresh concerns over sexual assaults by its drivers, Lyft issued an update on its safety features.

The company said an in-app 911 feature is now available to riders. But its other two announcements were promises for the future: It has partnered with anti-sexual assault nonprofit RAINN to create a mandatory safety exercise for driver applicants, and it is planning to add a feature to detect unexpected delays on trips later this year.

The update comes at a time when the company tries to assure the public over its safety measures. Last week, 14 women sued it over the alleged mishandling of their sexual assault, sexual misconduct and rape complaints against drivers ordered through its app. Among other concerns, the women alleged that Lyft is negligent in its background checks and fails to protect passengers with added technology.

The company provided few details about its mandatory “community safety education” module that drivers will have to complete as part of applying to work for Lyft. The company said current drivers will also eventually be required to complete it in order to continue providing rides on the platform. (Competitor Uber has partnered with RAINN to create educational videos that are sent to riders or drivers after a complaint is reported.)

One expert called the Lyft mandatory education measure “potentially important,” but said evaluating the effectiveness of the training, and whether a high score actually translates into a well-behaved driver, for example, will be key.

“There’s a big gap between knowledge and behavior. Our knowledge doesn’t translate directly into behavior and behavior is what’s important to evaluate,” said Susan B. Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ongoing issues

Last week’s lawsuit once again put the spotlight on the issue of sexual assault and abuse by ridehail drivers. While there is no publicly available data on the number of sexual assaults allegedly committed by Uber or Lyft drivers, a 2018 CNN investigation found that at least 103 Uber drivers and 18 Lyft drivers in the United States have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers since 2014.

In the wake of that report, Uber, followed by Lyft, eliminated its forced arbitration policy for sexual harassment and assault complaints — for drivers, riders and employees — and removed a confidentiality requirement as part of settlement agreements.

Since then, Lyft’s US operations have only grown and, at times, the company has benefited from Uber’s very public struggles with its own reputation. In reality, Lyft faces the same issues when it comes to passenger safety and the company is often steps behind when it comes to adding safety features to address the concerns of riders.

For example, the 911 feature, which makes it easy for drivers and riders to call and inform dispatchers of their current location and vehicle information in the event of an emergency, was first announced in May, and had been expected to roll out to riders “in the coming weeks.” By comparison, Uber launched the feature in a few cities in April 2018 before expanding it and adding Rapid SOS integration to automatically share that location information in select cities.

Additionally, Lyft said Tuesday that it will “roll out this year” a feature to predict if someone needs help based on detecting unexplained delays. It will then send messages to riders and drivers to ask if they need help or emergency assistance.

The feature sounds similar to Uber’s “ride check” feature, announced a year ago, that uses a smartphone’s sensors to detect an unexpected stop or an impact during a crash. Uber’s feature is still in the pilot phase; the company said it is available to about 50% of riders and drivers in the United States.

Still waiting on data

When asked about the Lyft updates, Stanford student and rideshare safety advocate Allison Tielking said, “this shows that Lyft is starting to pay more attention after the threats to its ‘woke’ image.”

Tielking presented a 60-slide Powerpoint presentation, seen by CNN Business, with safety recommendations to Lyft executives last fall. She has become an advocate on the issue after experiencing harassment by several Lyft drivers. However, Tielking said she’s still waiting for the “release of their long-promised data on sexual misconduct within the app.”

Both Uber and Lyft pledged more than a year ago to release a safety transparency report in 2019 that would include data on sexual assault and abuse complaints they receive in response to a CNN investigation into the topic. Eight months into the year, they’ve yet to do so.

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