09 Dec 2019 13:12 IST

Uber data is first step in tackling ugly problem

The company reported 6,000 sex-related assaults on the United States rides in 2017 and 2018

Solving an ugly problem requires admitting there is one in the first place. Uber Technologies recently released data on the number of sexual assaults, fatal attacks, and the like in the course of 2.3 billion US rides taken in 2017 and 2018. A tally of thousands for such events is shocking. But the fact the car-hailing firm is publishing its record can only aid in making Uber safer.

Over two years, the data shows that more than 6,000 sex-related assaults were reported, and 19 fatalities occurred. As a comparison point, Uber says the New York Police Department received more than 1,100 complaints of sex offenses in the transit system over 2017 and 2018. It’s hard to know how to interpret that, with 3.4 billion subway rides alone over the period reported by the city’s transit authority.

Credit Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi, who noted that reactions would range from surprise at the rarity of incidents to outrage at their frequency, and from praise for Uber’s efforts to brickbats. “They will all be right,” he said. Publication could, for instance, prompt more consumers to file lawsuits over the company’s lapses. Rival Lyft, which is planning to issue its own safety report, is already embroiled in a lawsuit filed by several women claiming the firm ignored sexual-assault complaints.

Uber has a chequered history with the harassment of women within its corporate ranks, one reason Khosrowshahi was brought in to replace former boss Travis Kalanick. The $48 billion firm has regularly been accused of lax background requirements for drivers, and a loophole allowing unvetted users to pretend to be approved drivers was one reason London recently declined to renew the company’s license to operate there, pending an appeal by Uber.

For all the ambiguities, though, Uber’s report achieves at least two things. First, it should force rivals to be more transparent. And it ensures the company is motivated to reduce the incidence of crime — as it did from 2017 to 2018 — by tightening background checks, adding security measures and providing training. Ideally Uber should aim for no sexual assaults or deaths. That’s beyond what’s possible, but measuring the challenge is one way to credibly tackle it.