Where were you when you first heard about Uber? For me, it was in 2014, while I was travelling overseas. After getting on dodgy night buses at 3 am and some late-night walks home (I was 18 and felt invincible), this new-fangled app felt like a glimpse into the future. I could just tap a button and a car would arrive at my destination to take me home? Genius.
Now, rideshare apps like Uber have changed the way we travel forever. Where once the Uber app was an alternative to taxis, you can now order meals, and more recently, groceries through Uber Eats. But as the platform has grown, so too has its responsibility.
In many ways, Uber’s progress in revolutionising ridesharing has made getting from A to B safer. For example, you are able to stay inside a safe venue and watch your ride come to you instead of waiting on a dark street, or you can share your trip home with family or friends in real time. But that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t seen some incidents of safety issues or instances of people posing as rideshare drivers to take advantage of vulnerable riders.
While these instances are rare, Uber is taking steps to ensure that every ride is a safe one, particularly for women and vulnerable people, who are encouraged to use the app features to access live safety support.
To learn more about how Uber is actually achieving this, Refinery29 Australia spoke to Andrea Orr, the Head of Public Safety at Uber and the woman responsible for its law enforcement and public health agency liaison and response across the Asia-Pacific region.
Orr’s commitment to safety goes back over 20 years when, just nine months before the September 11 attacks, she began work at the Australian Intelligence Community. While 9/11 changed the world forever, Orr notes that these events sharpened the focus on issues of public safety.
“Working on those public safety issues meant that my view of safety and security was really well-formed,” says Orr.
At the same time as her career in safety took off, Orr was also raising a young family — a family of daughters. She says, “I’ve been able to take my passion for safety and women's safety and put it into an organisation such as Uber, which has a commitment to helping communities and users become safer."
Orr notes that while women’s safety is a strong focus — 83% of sexual assault victims in Australia from 2014 to 2019 were women — the safety of all vulnerable people on the platform is what gets her up in the morning.
“While it’s an injustice that women have to be more mindful of safety in public places, it’s unfortunately a reality of the world we live in. Amongst other leaders at Uber, I feel passionately about driving change for women's safety, not just through the products and processes we have in place, but by being part of the solution in the communities we operate in,” says Orr.
Uber’s approach to safety, Orr shares, is founded on gathering feedback before, during, and after every trip. She says that there is a “scale” of safety incidents in Uber’s incident management process, with more concerning reports such as sexual assault resulting in perpetrators being immediately and permanently removed from the platform.
However, for less severe incidents, such as a driver making an inappropriate comment, Uber scrutinise their behaviour over a period of time. Consistent behaviour that breaches Uber’s Community Guidelines results in permanent loss of access.
All Uber app users — riders and drivers — are expected to adhere to these guidelines when signing up to the app.
Orr also shares that Uber's incident response and law enforcement engagement teams are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to any reported incidents or accidents.
These measures are Orr and her team’s whole purpose: bridging the gap between public safety officials and the services they provide. “Being able to have the ability for women to not only use the products, but also being able to stand up and speak when something doesn't feel right, really helps to deepen Uber's commitment to safety,” says Orr.
While these preventative tools are great measures to help ensure that people get home safe, Orr acknowledges that individuals also have to share the responsibility for their own safety.
“I think it's really that balance of ownership that we have as women to our own safety," she says. "I wish I didn't have to think differently to a male colleague or friend when I want to walk the dog at 5 am — but I do.”
In saying that, Orr notes that platforms like Uber have been fundamental in giving women and vulnerable communities more options to get home safely. And that's important to her as a woman leading the team that works on public safety.
Orr’s main safety tip when travelling with Uber is to “familiarise yourself with the app and understand the safety features”. These safety features have come a long way since the Uber app launched in Australia almost a decade ago and include:
- Being able to “share” your ride with a loved one so they can follow your trip in real time.
- The latest addition to the app, ‘Verify Your Ride’ uses ultrasound waves to send a rider’s unique PIN to the matched driver’s mobile phone, which hopes to provide a solution for passengers getting into the wrong cars.
- The 'On-Trip Reporting' feature that enables riders to discreetly report non-emergency situations to Uber's safety team while on a trip, if they feel uncomfortable.
An additional safety issue that didn’t need to be considered just a few years ago is prevention against COVID-19. Orr’s team, which traditionally worked on law enforcement, suddenly expanded their focus.
“We now support public health agencies in their contact tracing efforts. In 2020 alone, we supported over 180 instances that came to us across the Asia-Pacific region,” says Orr.
For people that may still feel wary about using ridesharing apps, Orr notes that “safety is at the heart of everything we do”.
“99.9% of trips end without a safety report and we want to be part of leading the conversation to make rideshare safer through our products and processes.”
Orr shares that if someone has had a bad experience, it's important that they report it, not only for accountability, but to enhance the experience for others.
“We're going to use that [reporting] to continue to refine and make the Uber app the safest platform that we can. That commitment is the totality of so many people's work at Uber every single day.”