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From the Uber-meister’s mouth

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Alon Lits insists he takes it personally when Uber riders are at risk. As general manager of Uber Sub-Saharan Africa, Lits says: “Last year was a challenging one where security is concerned, and it weighed heavily on me that people were at risk.”
by JORDAN MOSHE | May 31, 2018

He told the SA Jewish Report that 2017 saw a spike in incidents of intimidation against Uber drivers by taxi drivers. “Certain drop-off and collection points in Johannesburg were being targeted, and individual attacks were carried out against drivers stopping there,” he says.

“We intervened and ensured a physical security presence at these hotspots. Drivers have a right to an income, and passengers have the right to choose a mode of transport. We had to secure those rights.”

He is aware that people depend on Uber to get around if they don’t have transport or if they are planning to have a drink or two. People latched on to Uber as a safe and reasonably priced option. So, just how safe are we in Uber and what has been done to safeguard us?

“Everyone has the right to be safe, whether they’re on a train, in a taxi, walking on a pavement or in an Uber,” says Lits. “Unfortunately, crime is a reality in South Africa. No form of transport is completely safe. Still, safety is very important to Uber. Whether a person is in the back seat or behind the wheel, we want them to feel comfortable and secure.”

As it was impractical to set up security across Johannesburg, Uber partnered with Aura security two and a half years ago, and together they seek to innovate constantly and address security feedback from drivers.

“Our partnership means that we are not reliant on the police or on a single armed response group,” explains Lits. “Aura has numerous contracts with armed response and medical response teams, whose response time on average is a maximum of 10 minutes.”

Lits explained that their primary source of feedback is that of drivers, who relay their everyday concerns back to the company. One of their major concerns over the last few years was the acceptance of cash payments.

“Africa is very cash-based,” says Lits. “To bar people from paying with cash reduces access to our service. Not all people have bank cards, nor is everyone comfortable transacting online. So, in order to accommodate people and ensure our drivers felt safe, we implemented strategies using the app.”

Through the app’s cash indicator feature, a driver is able to see if a client will be paying with cash, and is allowed to ignore the request if he feels unsafe. Moreover, the social verification feature creates a user cash account which links an ID number or photo of the passenger to the app.

This can also be used with Facebook, and the identity of the passenger can be verified properly. “If the account looks suspicious,” says Lits, “it can be ignored and investigated.”

It is not unusual to hear stories from Uber drivers about passengers who endanger their lives, and the reverse is equally true. After describing to Lits the various reports of passengers who obstruct the vision of their driver, or drivers behaving recklessly, he insists he takes this very seriously.

“We operate according to community guidelines of mutual respect,” he says. “Drivers are able to report users for bad behaviour, which can lead to their being banned, if necessary.

“The same is true of passengers. If, for any reason, a passenger feels unsafe while in the vehicle, they can use the app to contact our response team, cancel a trip and report drivers.”

Before taking to the road, drivers are subject to rigorous background checks and proficiency tests. Before a driver is allowed to use the app, they first have to undergo a screening, including background and driving history checks, and are required to have a Professional Driving Permit (PrDP).

This means that the driver has undergone police clearance in order to obtain this permit before he can join the company. “We noticed a fair number of applicants coming forward who actually had criminal backgrounds,” explains Lits. “Using third-party screening, we are able to establish exactly what sort of person an applicant is and whether he is suitable to drive others around.

“Driver profiles show users exactly who their driver is, and this information is monitored and ensures their safety.”

Lits went on to explain how modern technology innovation has made the monitoring process more effective. “Elements of driving are now more traceable and open to analysis that before,” he says.

“Erratic driving patterns, swerving, excessive braking and other such behaviour is tracked, recorded and can be accessed and reviewed. Automated systems monitor driver ratings and flag those who need close review.”

Beyond these measures, the variety of safety features offered by the service seems comprehensive. These include ‘Share My Trip’, a safety feature which allows riders and drivers to share their whereabouts and trip status with friends and family, as well as GPS tracking of every trip.

Lits believes these features are very valuable and he encourages people to make use of them. “When my wife takes a trip anywhere by herself, she shares the trip information with me,” he says. “This way, I can monitor her trip and make sure that she arrives at her destination safely.”

Lits says that only people over 18 can order a ride. “If an adult orders a ride for a child, we encourage users to send an adult along to accompany them,” he says. “We are not a scholar service, and if a user does book a ride for a child without adult accompaniment, we urge them to be security conscious. This includes telling the driver in advance that the passenger is a child, and that the trip is being monitored by an adult.

“This doesn’t mean to say that there are major safety concerns, but it is ideal to make the intentions of the passengers clear and to ensure that the driver knows exactly who his passengers are. Also, ensure that the child passenger is sure of the trip details before he or she gets into the vehicle.”

Lits encourages users to implement their own security precaution practices for using the app. “Always be sure to verify who your driver is,” he says. “Don’t say, ‘Hi are you John?’ to your driver when he pulls up. Instead, introduce yourself and ask him to do the same. Look at his profile and make sure that his photo, the car’s registration number and vehicle model match the profile.

“If, for any reason, you feel uncomfortable, share the trip with a friend and ask them to keep an eye on the app. Remember that drivers have a right to feel safe as well, so if they know that an area is unsafe and would rather drop you off a little further away from your destination, don’t be difficult. Know that your driver is being security conscious.”

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