As It Happens

3,000 sexual assaults reported in Uber rides last year the 'tip of the iceberg,' says lawyer

Companies like Uber and Lyft could easily prevent sexual assaults if they wanted to, says lawyer Mike Bomberger.

Mike Bomberger says Lyft and Uber should install cameras and make police reporting mandatory

Uber reported Thursday that more than 3,000 sexual assaults were reported during its U.S. rides in 2018. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE)

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Companies like Uber and Lyft could easily prevent sexual assaults if they wanted to, says lawyer Mike Bomberger.

Uber revealed Thursday that more than 3,000 sexual assaults were reported during U.S. rides in 2018, and 2,936 in 2017. Lyft vowed to release a safety report of its own, but did not say when. There is no data about Canada.

"The numbers are jarring and hard to digest," Tony West, Uber's chief legal officer, told the New York Times. "What it says is that Uber is a reflection of the society it serves."

Bomberger doesn't buy that. He's a San Diego, Calif., lawyer who represents more than 100 people who say they were sexually assaulted in an Uber or a Lyft, and he spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the report. Here is part of their conversation. 

Why do you think Uber decided to make these numbers public?

Clearly they've had these numbers for a period of time. They're a technology company. They track this data. ... So I think that the victims coming forward and talking about these assaults put pressure on them to release the data.

What are some of the stories about Uber, some of the cases you're dealing with? 

They're all over the place. People are fondled. People are raped. There's attempted rapes. Some of our clients were successful in fighting off their attacker. Some of our clients were not. Some of our clients were drugged by the drivers.

At least 70 per cent were trying to take a Lyft or an Uber late in the evening because they were out with friends and were drinking and they were trying to get home safely, and they were assaulted when they were in the back seat.

What do you make of the numbers here, of them reporting that there are more than 3,000 cases?

Those numbers represent a fraction of how many assaults actually occur. We've been practicing and specializing in sexual assault for the past 20 years, and all of the studies and data are pretty consistent that, at most, one in three women that are sexually assaulted report that assault.

These numbers represent the floor, the tip of the iceberg. 

I'll say one more thing — and that is that the vast majority of these women were drinking prior to the assault. And we know from our own experience that when a woman has been drinking and they are assaulted, the likelihood of them reporting the assault is even less than one in three. It's far less.

Lawyer Mike Bomberger says both Lyft and Uber could take concrete measures to dramatically reduce sexual assaults in their rides. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

I can probably guess why women who've been drinking don't report them, but what is the reason as far as you know?

Women feel that if they've been drinking and they're assaulted that people are going to blame them for the assault. And the shame should not fall on the women. It's on these predators that prey on vulnerable women that are trying to make the right decision to get home.

The company points out that these sexual assaults ... only represent .002 per cent of Uber rides, even though their own chief legal officer said that he found the numbers jarring and hard to digest. What do they really represent? 

These numbers are astronomically high. And one of the reasons is because most of these happened when you have two strangers together, and more likely than not, it's the woman who's vulnerable and is assaulted.

Women do not often put themselves in a situation where they are alone with a perfect stranger when they're intoxicated or inebriated. So they're putting their trust in the company or in the driver to get them home safely. And, unfortunately, these things have occurred to them.

One of the things that I really am annoyed by what Mr. West said was that this is a reflection of our society. It's in no way a reflection of our society.

If you look at all the women that travel in vehicles, in public transportation, in taxis, in any situation, the number of women that are assaulted in ride-share vehicles is far more. It's astronomically more than in other situations.

Uber can prevent these assaults from happening and should have prevented, you know, 90 per cent of these assaults from happening. They've had the technology to do so.

What's the likelihood of someone that has a camera in the car ... raping or assaulting someone in the car with a camera there?  It's not rocket science. People are going to be far, far less likely to do it. And Uber could have made this part of their policies years ago.

They're starting to roll it out in different states right now — which, again, I applaud them and I credit them for that. 

From where we sit, the numbers of assaults that occur in ride-share, you can't even compare it to taxi cabs because it's just not even a fair comparison. ​​​​​​- Mike Bomberger, lawyer

How do these numbers compare to what happens to people in taxi cabs, where there are screening and background checks?

All I have is the data that's available to me. Our office has specialized in sexual assault cases for the past 23 years. We have not had one taxi cab case where a taxi cab driver has assaulted a woman. We have gotten hundreds of cases from ride-share victims just within the past three years.

So from where we sit, the numbers of assaults that occur in ride-share, you can't even compare it to taxi cabs because it's just not even a fair comparison. 

What would happen if they were under the same regulations as the cab companies? 

I think if these companies treated their drivers like the cab companies and let them know that they're watching them, they're being held accountable, that these numbers wouldn't be what they are. 

The fact that these companies don't have a mandatory reporting policy ... how difficult is it for these companies to make it a policy that if they learn about a crime about someone being sexually assaulted or raped in their vehicle, that they report that to the police?

That is common sense. If you're interested in getting predators off the street, you report that to the police. But neither one of these companies have adopted that.

The message is we care more about our own public perception of having our drivers prosecuted for a crime than we do about the safety of our passengers.

Now that they released the numbers, now that they're being transparent at least about the cases, do you think that it shows that there's a sign there's a change coming, or that they are taking this more seriously?

I think that this report is a watershed moment for ride-share because up to this point I don't believe that either one of these companies truly acknowledged the problem and the amount of women whose lives have been harmed by sexual assaults.

And in order to really address the problem, you have to first acknowledge it.

A lot of the things that Uber did in this report and committed to doing, they didn't have to do, but they did do it. And I know a lot of our clients and victims that we represent feel very good about some of the changes that Uber has committed to being made.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.