Data in Policy Debate: Uber and Sexual Assault

The safety of Uber is under question as multiple incidents of sexual assault or rape have arisen in the news, and Uber's CEO has been infamously tone-deaf on dealing with it. More and more, Uber is being called "unsafe for women."

We won't be publishing a defense or confirmation of this impression, and of course Uber has a duty to prevent any of these from happening. Instead, in this post, we want to take the opportunity to dig into the data a bit and see if we can provide a framework for evaluating the general impression.

What we've heard anecdotally is that the general impression floating around is that Uber is significantly more dangerous for female passengers than taxis or even Lyft.

A Rational Metric of Comparison

We've seen various tallies for total incidents of sexual assault and rape in Ubers in the United States and globally. Uber claims that it has heard 5 claims of rape and about 170 of sexual assault between December 2012 and August 2015 (so 2.75 years). Buzzfeed received a leaked screenshot that had 5,827 cases of "rape" and 6,160 cases of "sexual assault" in a search across its support tickets. 

We don't have statistics about Lyft, but they have also had some incidents in the news. 

 "," which we're sure is totally not a taxi lobby advocacy group, lists 61 total sexual assaults and harrassments globally since 2014 in Lyft and Uber rides combined, though these are limited to those reported in the news (which means they're some subsection of those reported to the police). 

Whether any of these "seem big" or "seem small" is pretty unhelpful. If we're going to compare Uber, Lyft, and conventional taxis, we need a single metric that compares them all--Uber has about 10x more rides than Lyft, and (using New York as a basis), taxis probably have 6-7x more rides than Uber. 

In order to have any idea of how safe one service is compared to another, we'd need a single metric: incidents per ride. That would give users a strong sense of relative safety across their options, but that data's simply not available: police databases just don't track whether a sexual assault, harrassment, or rape incident occurred in an Uber, Lyft, or taxi, and as we've seen above, various reports about Uber's safety record are in wild disagreement. 

So do we know whether Uber is safe, when compared to other driving services? Sadly, we just have no idea. 

Comparing Different Sources

To get some sense of how often one is sexually assaulted in Ubers, we can do some really ugly math. Let's look at the high number from that screenshot.

Between rape and sexual assault we see a total of just short of 12,000 over 2.75 years. Over a similar period (2014-2016) on, we see 61 that made it to the news (and that also includes "harrassment," which wasn't included in the Buzzfeed list). If the "big list" is accurate, it would  mean globally that 0.5% of all incidents reported to Uber were then reported in the news. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, about 32% of sexual assaults are reported to the police, so there is about a 64x discrepancy here that we'd need to find a way to account for. 

RAINN also tells us that about 80% of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim, along with 82% of sexual assaults. If we use 2012's numbers for sex offense victims as a basis (and rape has generally been declining in the US, so it's unlikely that current years are higher), we have 67,354 victims in the United States. Of those, about 12,000 were strangers to the offender.

Given that the numbers from Uber are over 2.75 years, we're seeing about 4363 incidents per year. About 1/4 of Uber drivers are in the US, so perhaps we can estimate that about 1091 of those annual incidents are in the US. If the "big list" is accurate, it would mean about 8% of all rapes and sexual assaults by non-acquaintances in the United States were by Uber drivers. There are 162,037 Uber drivers in the US, of which about 134,000 are male, compared to 119.4 million adult men: about 0.11% of the population. This would make Uber drivers about 90x more likely than the average male to rape or sexually assault a stranger. 

We can't know anything for certain but this analysis suggests that the screenshot--if it's accurate--might not be accurately portraying the total number of sexual assault and rape incidents with Uber vehicles. If Uber's number of 175 is correct, that's 64 per year, or about 0.5% of total sexual assaults and rapes committed by strangers. Since they're 0.1% of the population, this would make them about 5x as likely as your average adult male.

But we don't know how that compares to Lyft or regular taxis.  


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.