Are Uber and Lyft Safe: Distraction Among Drivers


Could ridesharing drivers be the most distracted drivers of all?

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6 min read

At Quoted, we often find ourselves talking about distracted driving—its root causes, its possible solutions, and its devasting effects. But one thing we’ve not yet written about is the relationship drivers who work like for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft have with distraction. Ridesharing apps have found such tremendous success precisely because they’re apps—but it turns out, you’re not the only one fiddling with your phone to facilitate a ride. Your would-be driver is, too. And that can have some dangerous consquences.

How Ridesharing Works for Drivers

On the other end of your Uber app, your driver must accept your ride, much the same way you request it. But there’s a catch: He or she must accept it within 10 – 15 seconds, or risk losing the opportunity, and, of course, the money. Harry Campbell, aka The Rideshare Guy, explained it to us:

“On the surface, being a rideshare driver sounds like a pretty easy and even safe gig. But one of the biggest safety issues that drivers have with the app is that you only have 10-15 seconds to accept a request. If you miss a request, it hurts your acceptance rate, which in turn hurts your pay and could even get you de-activated as a driver.

Campbell says he tries his best to avoid distracted driving behaviors: “I’m also a big proponent of driver safety so I try to pull over if I get a request and then accept it once I’m stopped,” he says. “I really like to avoid touching my screen while I’m driving, but let’s be honest, that isn’t possible in every situation.”

And if there’s a psychological pull toward a ping notification even when all it’s tied to is your number of Instagram likes, you’d better believe that pull is strong when it’s tied to your income. “It’s conditioned. You get a ding, you respond, you get a ride, you get money, you get paid,” Deborah Hersman, chief executive of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit, and former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency, told the New York Times’ Bits blog. She also told the Times that responding to the device takes visual, manual and cognitive attention. “There’s not a whole lot of debate this is distracting.”

Are Uber drivers distracted drivers?
Are Uber drivers distracted drivers?

How Big is the Risk?

So just how dangerous is it to accept a fare? According to Uber, its app “was designed with safety in mind,” as the company explained to Bits writer Matt Richtel. Richtel explains Uber’s defense: “Drivers do not have to look at the device to accept a fare but can respond to the audible tone by touching anyplace on the screen.” Lyft also told Richtel, “Safety is our top priority” and that their drivers are urged to use “hands-free navigation, a phone mount and safe-driving practices.”

Uber drivers have a financial incentive to drive distracted.

But if you speak to safe and distracted driving experts, and the rideshare drivers themselves, a slightly different story presents itself. Jeff Larason, President of the Safe Roads Alliance, says he understands that taxi and limo companies all need to maintain contact with drivers in some capacity. “However,” he says, “radio and voice communication via phone are less problematic than communication via text or smartphone app.”

He adds: “The danger comes from the method of communication and the requirement for a response within a specific timeframe. This provides a financial incentive to drive distracted. Drivers must look at their phones, assess the location and time requirement, make a decision regarding their response and then respond to the inquiry. All of this requires that vision, cognition and manual operation be removed from the act of driving.”

Joel Feldman, President and Founder of EndDD.org, whose daughter Casey Feldman was killed by a distracted driver in 2009, agrees that distraction is inherent to how rideshare drivers make money. “They receive business through phone [requests] and need to respond, in the case of Uber, within 15 seconds to accept the fare,” Feldman says. “In those 15 seconds, no matter what the traffic conditions or potential driving hazards, the driver must look at the phone, check where the fare is, what the distance and time are to get there and then decide if it is worth it to accept the fare. So not only does the driver become visually distracted (looking away from the road) but also cognitively distracted (thinking and making decisions about things other than driving).”

It’s the time element that seems most vexing to safety experts: “The requirement that they respond within a specific period of time reminds me of the old, and fatally (literally) flaw policy that Dominoes Pizza once had that pizzas would be delivered in 30 minutes or it would be free,” Larason says.

What Drivers Can Do

Rand Larson, who runs the blog Uber Confessions, also admits it’s difficult: “I would need to be honest and say that yes, I find myself more distracted while driving for Uber.” But he adds that it’s not so much replies to requests that get him. “My distraction comes from trying to give extra attention to the passengers – they encourage us to be very attentive.” And as far as the app goes? “The biggest distraction comes in the design of the Uber driver app. The text is so small that it is difficult to read. I’m contanstantly leaning forward to see the address or follow directions.”

But Campbell adds that while it’ true rideshare drivers face distractions on the road, there are a few things they can do to mitigate that risk, “including mounting their phone and not trying to decipher where the ride request is coming from until after they accept the ride.” Campbell’s final tip? “If they need to accept a call while moving, it’s best to just tap the screen and then pull over to navigate and contact the rider.”