A few weeks ago, I took an Uber.
The ride-share service sent a driver in a Honda Element. I had finished a reporting assignment just before 10 p.m. on a weeknight when he pulled up to the intersection of Warren Street and Washington Street in Roxbury, then stopped and put on his blinkers.
I checked to make sure the license plate number on the app matched the car’s, one of Uber’s own safety tips, and opened one of the car’s two doors.
But Uber drivers aren’t supposed to drive two-door cars, I’d later learn. For a vehicle to be eligible to drive in Boston, it must have four doors, according to the company’s vehicle standards.
After confirming my name and destination, the driver locked the doors, checked for traffic around him, and put his foot on the gas. I leaned back in the seat, and he pulled up to a red light. He asked if I would rather sit in the backseat.
“Well, we’re already going now,” I said. “It should be fine.”
As we crossed Mass. Ave. into Cambridge where I live, he asked if I had a boyfriend and wondered how long we’d been together. He told me he was married, but the spark was gone. He told me he was a very sexual person, and that he loved giving oral sex.
I squirmed in my seat, feeling queasy. He said that seeing a woman satisfied was the best part for him, but his wife wasn’t into it. He then offered me oral sex, and asked whether I had any sexual fantasies.
I deflected the questions and scooted away from him, but I now realize this is the moment when I should’ve gotten out of the car. When I knew things were wrong. But I was so focused on getting home that I sat still. I froze. The walls of the car seemed to inch closer to me, making the space seem darker and smaller.
“I feel like I met you because something is supposed to happen, and it’s a sign,” I remember him saying.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I told you I have a boyfriend.”
The GPS announced that our destination was on the right. I reached for the door’s handle and pulled, but it didn’t open. He pushed the lock button, and the doors made a clicking sound. I pushed again. Still locked.
When I told him to unlock the doors, he demanded I tell him whether I was sexually attracted to him. I don’t remember my exact words, but it was a no. He said he wanted to kiss me, and, as I pushed up the lock, he turned his body toward me. I pushed the door open and stumbled backward out of the car, struggling to catch my balance.
“Can I just get your number?” he asked. “We can stay in touch. Don’t you want to be friends? You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
That’s exactly the problem. Weeks after I last took an Uber and a number of customer support calls and emails later, I still don’t know what’s going to happen to this driver. I have no way of knowing if I was the first person he has done this to. I have no way of knowing if I will be the last. And I’m concerned that he could do the same thing, or worse, to someone else.
• • •
Massachusetts racks up more than 2 million Uber trips each month, but it’s tough to determine how many incidents like this take place. Most police reports can be searched by name or address, but you can’t easily find how many assaults happen in Ubers. No one seems to have a complete picture of the problem nationally, either. A semblance of scale comes from searching “creepy Uber driver” on Twitter, but that’s unscientific for a variety of reasons.
Uber tracks incidents reported through its app, but the data aren’t public. (BuzzFeed News recently analyzed two-and-a-half years of leaked Uber data, and found that complaints of “rape” and “sexual assault” could be in the thousands, which the company disputes.)
The night of the incident, I filed a complaint through the app to report what happened. A few hours later, a customer service representative sent an email telling me that Uber refunded the ride and gave me a $30 credit toward future rides. He said they’d notify people on the “local level” to provide “coaching opportunities to prevent this sort of incident from ever happening again in the future.” He also said that Uber took “steps to ensure that future pairings between yourself and this driver are no longer permitted.”
The next day, even as I headed to the police station to file a report, I wasn’t sure that I should do anything. I kept telling myself that nothing happened. He hadn’t touched me. I got away unharmed.
The detective told me they couldn’t do much because the driver didn’t physically assault me, but that they would keep the information on hand in case anyone else filed a complaint about him.
I then followed up with Uber to ask about the exact nature of the “coaching opportunities” and whether the driver would be permitted to pick up passengers in the future.
“Unfortunately, due to privacy and confidentiality concerns, we will be unable to share any details on the exact nature of the coaching opportunities and whether or not the partner will remain active on the platform due to this issue,” the customer service rep said in an email. “I will assure you that these incidents are taken very [emphasis his] seriously and we will be sure to investigate this at the local level thoroughly.”
I responded and told the rep that I was taking this incident seriously as well, which is why I reported it to the police. The rep’s manager emailed back within the hour to assure me that the driver and I would no longer be paired together.
“We take all reports seriously and take appropriate actions towards our partners when we receive these reports!” she wrote, her response staccatoed with exclamation points. “If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to contact me!”
• • •
Because none of my initial questions were answered, I reached out to Uber’s press office, explained what happened a few days prior, and asked to learn more about these “coaching opportunities.” Even then, the answer didn’t become much clearer.
“I can’t go into great detail,” said Uber New England spokeswoman Carlie Waibel. “But I think it’s more accurate to say it’s an education. It’s reaching out to that driver and explaining what kind of communication is appropriate.”
That all made me wonder whether another passenger would need to go through what I did for Uber to take action. I asked Waibel whether this was true.
“There’s no blueprint for response,” Waibel said. “We do handle every situation. And feedback is extremely important in making sure riders feel safe and are safe. The goal is to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
That didn’t answer my question, so I followed up and asked, again, what exactly the education entails.
Waibel wouldn’t elaborate, and declined to make any members of the driver operations team available to discuss the specifics. I asked to speak to a member of the national press team to learn if the education is consistent across the country, but no spokesperson was made available.
A number of other people I spoke with for this story, including lawyers as well as researchers at Harvard and UC Berkeley, said it’s impossible to know whether the company is taking further action — it’s privately owned, after all — but more than one said training isn’t the answer.
“It’ll take some time and experience before we reach that kind of threshold as to how ride-sharing services should be regulated to encourage safety,” said Janice Griffith, a Suffolk University law professor who studies ride-hail companies. “What might happen is the public demands more regulation to ensure safety, but that will cost them.”
Griffith also said that market forces are at play in this situation.
“If riders don’t feel safe taking one type of service, they’ll choose another,” she said. “And that can force companies to change their practices.”
In the weeks since that night, I still don’t know if Uber’s “coaching” has helped the driver learn not to make sexual advances on his passengers. I don’t know whether he still drives for them, or whether he’s received another complaint.
For their part, Uber hasn’t been willing to let me know. And that’s why I’m unwilling to take another Uber.
Update, 12:50 p.m. Friday: Shortly after this article published, Waibel contacted Boston.com and said the “driver is no longer active on the platform.”
Allison Pohle is a staff reporter at Boston.com, where she primarily writes about education.