The Los Angeles Times has published an article written by the San Francisco Public Press reporting that for the first time, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is requiring companies that operate in the ride-hailing industry to adopt comprehensive measures to prevent sexual assaults. The new procedures are the result of a vote by the CPUC that follows on the heels of thousands of publicized sexual assaults perpetrated by Uber and Lyft drivers on their passengers. The decision reached requires that all ride-hailing firms train drivers to avoid sexual assault and harassment, adopt procedures for investigating complaints of misconduct, and use uniform terminology in their annual reports to the CPUC so that the agency can accurately monitor incidents.
The commission did alter its preliminary proposal by removing a requirement for companies to inform victims that they could opt in to speak with CPUC investigators. Initially, the agency said the measure would help the CPUC ensure firms such as Uber and Lyft properly respond to claims of sexual assault. Instead, the CPUC decided that cases would be better handled by investigators within the companies once they receive proper training.
The CPUC is California’s principal regulator of ride-hailing firms and the state’s sole agency that collects comprehensive safety data on the industry. 99.9% of California’s ride-hailing business is conducted by Uber and Lyft respectively. Ride-hailing in California was legalized by the CPUC in 2013, and within months reports of alleged assaults around the country began being reported in the media.
It took until 2017 for the commission to specifically require that ride-share firms include sexual assaults and harassment complaints in the mandatory annual reports to the CPUC. Even then, the lack of requirements regarding consistent definitions of assaults and harassment resulted in unreliable data.
The new rules define sexual assault as the touching, or attempted touching, of sexual body parts of a driver or passenger against their will. Victims who are unconscious at the time are included, as several passengers have stated in lawsuits that they were assaulted while passed out in the back seat of a ride-share driver’s vehicle.
The definition of sexual harassment is stated as unwelcome visual, verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct based on sex, directed at a passenger or driver. Examples include flirting, inappropriate remarks about appearance, and inappropriate personal questions.
Both new definitions provided by the CPUC are based on California criminal and civil law and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Definitions that Uber and Lyft developed after consulting with experts in the field were rejected by the CPUC. Also rejected by the agency was Uber’s suggestion that the company only report incidents in which it had deactivated the driver. CPUC rightfully claimed this threshold would obscure the true number of assault claims.
Part of the new mandate is that all ride-hailing firms develop a program of consultation with a recognized expert in order to train drivers using examples of prohibited acts on an annual basis. Training much also cover harassment based on expression and gender identity, as required by state law.
Ride-share firms are required to provide drivers and passengers a copy of their policies for preventing sexual assaults and harassment. An investigation manual that requires a timely response to assault claims and documentation must also be developed by firms. Experts must also be consulted to establish investigator qualifications, procedures for trauma informed investigations, and training.
The new requirements put forth by the CPUC are a step in the right direction, but still leave passengers vulnerable to predators that utilize these platforms to prey on unsuspecting victims. It is clear that these firms are slow to adapt to the safety needs of their customers, as their primary concern is to maximize the profitability of their services. Until rider safety becomes a fundamental priority for companies such as Uber and Lyft, the team at Estey & Bomberger will continue to fight for the victims of ride-sharing driver sexual assault.