My cab driver is drunk… How safe is Uber South Africa?

Uber has been given a bit of a rough time recently in international media (if you need a quick brush up read Time’s piece on some of the controversies that have effected the rideshare service) but for the most part it seemed that the controversy over the pond hadn’t infiltrated South Africa. I use Uber Johannesburg often despite living a good thirty to forty minutes from the “fun” stuff. While it ends up costing me between R200 – R300 on my Uber transport, there is some method to my madness. For starters, I can toss back a couple of tequilas without risking a 40 minute drive home and the chance I could take someone’s life. I’m also a young single girl driving a considerable distance, on my own, at night. The benefits of a service like Uber, to someone like me, don’t really need to be explained.

Travelling around the popular South African nightspots was extremely difficult if you didn’t have your own car or a “designated driver” for the night but then the likes of Goodfellas, Uber and other rideshare/taxi services popped up. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to be getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while over the legal drinking limit. But what do you do when the very driver you’re trusting with your drunken self turns up inebriated?

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Lisa Davis posted that status the afternoon after her experience. She had already emailed supportjoburg@uber.com. Following her status update, 3 more of her friends commented that they too had had similar experiences with drivers under the influence arriving to collect them.

So how safe is Uber South Africa then?

Here’s something you need to understand about the Uber service – drivers are not employees of the company. Instead they enter in to a deal with the rideshare app service whereby Uber supplies them with the lead generation software facility. They’re ultimately their own boss, if you like. They’re also able to dictate their own hours and determine how much they work. I questioned an Uber spokesperson about the application for drivers and was assured it was very stringent. All new driver applications undergo a comprehensive criminal background check before they’re allowed access to the Uber system. Uber also performs regular vehicle inspections to ensure vehicle safety standards are maintained.

However, because the drivers work to their own schedule and aren’t being deployed from a central depot where they are clocking in and overseen by a superior, an intoxicated driver can choose to get behind the wheel of his vehicle.

So should we all stop using Uber?

I spoke to two other cab companies, one operates in Gauteng and the other throughout the country. While both commented they had never had to deal with drunk drivers before, they also pointed out that it could happen, much like an employee at a fast food joint could arrive for work drunk. While I understand what they are trying to say I do not think the two scenarios can be compared – a drunk employee operating the cold drink machine versus a drunk driver taking me home are two very different things. However, the point both were trying to make is that, while you cannot stop incidents like this from happening you can do your utmost best to ensure they are handled quickly and everyone is kept as safe as possible.

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Following Lisa’s Facebook status she was contacted by Uber Johannesburg. The driver was suspended immediately and they requested the contact details of the other people who had complained of similar incidents. Lisa says following her status update the company was very quick to respond.

According to an Uber spokesperson, “any situation where a riders safety is put at risk is absolutely unacceptable to us. Immediately upon hearing about a complaint of this nature from a rider, we would suspend the partner drivers account whilst we investigate. Once we have completed our investigation, if we discover that the riders complaint is valid, we would deactivate the partner drivers account.”

The major headache for Uber users when incidents such as these happen is that there is no contact number via the app. In situations where you need to contact someone at Uber urgently it is suggested that you email from your smartphone. You can use either supportjoburg@uber.com, supportcapetown@uber.com or supportdurban@uber.com depending on your city.

On the same night Lisa had her drunk driver experience, I had a driver fraudulently claim he had picked me up. On ending the trip my account was debited. I requested another ride and the same driver proceeded to pull the same trick. I tweeted @Uber_Joburg immediately and within the space of 20 minutes my money was refunded and I’d received a mail from the Support team. I can confirm that, in my experiences, even when in another country, the Uber city teams have always been reasonably quick to respond to queries or complaints.

On cancelling the trips I was able to review the driver in app and in both instances gave him a negative review. Drivers who don’t consistently keep customers happy and get good ratings from passengers, are suspended from the Uber service and asked to attend a training session.

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Here are some tips to stay safe when using Uber (or any cab/lifting service):

  • For starters, binge drinking is not sexy. Calling any cab because you’re now on the pavement throwing up your stomach contents is asking for trouble. Drink responsibly! Being over the limit doesn’t mean you need to be falling down.
  • When your driver arrives to collect you, hang back so they need to get out the car to open your door (most cab and Uber drivers do this any way). This way you may be able to spot if your driver is intoxicated.
  • If at any time you feel uneasy ask to end the ride. Either insist your driver takes you back to your pick up destination or drops you off at the nearest garage, like Lisa did.
  • Record your driver’s name, car registration and telephone number on pick up (it’s easy to access in the Uber app and other local rideshare apps I’ve used. I’d suggest taking a quick screen shot so the details are saved to your phone). If you believe the driver is under the influence report him to the local metro police immediately.
  • If you’re using Uber you have access to a live GPS-enabled map throughout your journey. You can share that map with contacts on your phone and they’re also able to then track your travels. If you’re a girl on your own and you’ve had a bit to drink I’d suggest doing this before getting in the car.

When we drink we try justify our bad behaviour. Getting behind the wheel of your car while over the legal limit is never acceptable. Not because your life is at risk but because every other person on the road’s life is at risk as well. Services like Uber are, despite some unfortunate incidents, far safer and smarter than you attempting to get yourself home. Don’t be irresponsible during the festive season or ever.

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8 Comments

  • Reply Don December 8, 2014 at 08:35

    What’s more than a little worrying, should something nasty occur, is the lack of a definitive liability. What happens if a passenger gets hurt during an Uber ride?
    I’m always hesitant to use a service where the people providing it don’t actually work for the service provider.

    • Reply Tech Girl December 8, 2014 at 09:28

      The problem is cab services that employee staff are so expensive and you need to book in advance with drop off & pick up times. I find using Uber so much easier in that regard – but definitely hear your argument.

      • Reply Don December 8, 2014 at 09:39

        Fair enough. I’m just dreading the day when someone gets what they pay for…
        Nonetheless, thanks for the article!

    • Reply IceTy May 13, 2015 at 21:29

      Cars working under Uber are required to have proof of passenger liability.

  • Reply naeem December 27, 2014 at 05:53

    it shouldnt just end there ie. suspension and being fired. Drunk driving, especially in SA has cost the lives of thousands. Uber should press charges against the driver. Point is – to come down hard, fast and public on such drivers. sending a clear message to others.

    • Reply Tech Girl December 29, 2014 at 11:14

      Naeem I completely agree. We are only able to report on feedback given to us and this was the official response from Uber.

  • Reply MK-mat December 17, 2015 at 12:59

    Just got ripped off by Uber at the Gautrain Station in Centurion. I hail Uber and the driver does not arrive, and I get a message that the driver has cancelled. I attempt to re-connect for another ride and the application freezes and in the process and gives me a message of some “delay”. About 20 minutes later my credit card is debited with 25 Rands. What a scam and rip off. I am not using Uber again.

    • Reply Tech Girl December 17, 2015 at 15:40

      Happened to me once before. Drop them an email they refund immediately

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