Ride Sharing Safety During a Pandemic

By Nicole Pirshafiey

July 2020



I don’t know about you, but at this point, it truly feels like we’ve been in quarantine for a decade. Maybe it’s because I’m working remotely full time and trying to juggle that with keeping my toddler entertained and engaged, but the last 120 days have felt like a lifetime.


So imagine my surprise when, doing a bit of research into how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted ride sharing apps like Lyft and Uber, I learned that these companies have only been around for a decade. It turns out that Uber was founded back in 2009, and Lyft in 2012. Considering these apps have only been part of our cultural norms and experiences for just over a decade, the speed with which the ride sharing experience has changed is mindboggling! My mind is actually boggled.


Back in 2019 (in the “Before Times” as Twitter likes to call it), our major concern with ride sharing safety was the risk of injury or assault from a rider or driver. According to Uber’s 2019 safety report, Vox reports that over 3,000 sexual assaults were reported in that calendar year alone. In terms of injury, there have been “hundreds of personal injury claims and civil lawsuits filed by rideshare passengers across the country” according to the Ankin Law Office. As a woman, I always made it a point to use a safety app while using a rideshare, and texting my husband or friends while traveling to ensure they knew when I got from Point A to Point B safely.


But now, those potential risks take a backseat, if you’ll pardon the pun, to the new concerns at the forefront of our global consciousness: the coronavirus pandemic. Assault and injury risks aside, is it even remotely safe to consider getting in a car with a stranger, especially when you don’t know where they’ve been or who has been in the car before you?


The CDC offers some best practices to avoid transmission, but they don’t particular give guidance as to whether or not it’s actually safe for drivers or passengers to be sharing a car during the pandemic. The Washington Post certainly has a perspective, however: in their article titled “Coronavirus is Forcing Uber to Return to its Start-up Roots”, they document that rides are down as much as 80% since the start of the pandemic, and the general consensus that even those who used to take Ubers or Lyfts multiple times a week now find themselves questioning if they’ll ever use ride sharing again. In fact, they begin the article with this quote from Sabrina Wang, a D.C. commuter who used to take Uber or Lyft multiple times per week: “You don’t know how many rides that person accepted, you don’t know how often they cleaned the services ... you don’t have control over your environment.”


Given that it’s impossible to make an informed decision about whether a particular ride is safe to take, is it a huge mistake to assume the driver and/or previous passengers are following the CDC’s guidance for ridesharing safety during the pandemic? If a driver takes passengers knowing they may have been exposed, or a passenger gets in a ride while waiting their COVID-19 test results, could either be held liable for infecting and spreading the coronavirus?


It certainly makes me curious to find out what the 2020 Safety Reports from these companies look like. Will we see infected drivers or passengers causing outbreaks in our communities? Rather than injury or assault, will we see COVID spreading as a possible safety metric when looking back at ride sharing in 2020? Given that guidance and policy vary wildly from state to state, it will be even more telling to see how ride-sharing safety in 2020 is visualized on a map. Will states with mandated mask policies and a cutdown on non-essential travel see less ride-sharing spread than those states with looser responses to the pandemic?

Time will tell. Until then, ride sharing apps like Lyft and Uber have a responsibility to put the safety of their drivers and passengers first and implement strictly-enforced policies that align with the CDC guidance, regardless of local government guidance. A national policy that adopts the most stringent and safe policies will protect its drivers and passengers, as well as public opinion and their bottom line.