Your Private Driver: What’s My Name?

This column provides tips, insights, and observations on TNCs like Uber and Lyft from a driver that’s worked with them for several years.

Passenger safety has always been a hot-button issue with Uber and Lyft. Taxi companies and others have long railed on the seemingly weak vetting process that TNCs have for their drivers, and any story of an Uber or Lyft driver committing a rape, assault, or murder seems to get traction in the mainstream media. It was for these reasons that the very first column I contributed to over two years ago focused on ways that passengers could protect themselves. That advice has not changed, even if the companies, via their apps, have provided a few more tools for passengers to use.

In the wake of a recent high-profile incident where a college student was murdered after climbing in a stranger’s vehicle who falsely claimed to be an Uber driver, the safety conversation has once again taken new urgency. A “What’s My Name” campaign was launched by the president of the University of South Carolina, where the student was attending, to prompt all Uber and Lyft passengers to ask the driver to confirm their name before entering a vehicle. This is actually very bad advice, as it puts drivers at risk of “uberjacking” scams, and can lead to some awkward standoffs where no one is willing to identify themselves.

Sandra is waiting on an Uber. A vehicle with Uber trade press pulls up. 

Sandra: “Hi, what’s my name?”

Driver: “Ashley”

Sandra: “Yup, that’s me!”

Sandra now has a free ride on Ashley’s dime. Of course, Ashley will cancel the ride when she realizes that her Uber is driving away from her, and the driver is now carrying around Sandra for free.

How big of a problem is uberjacking? Well, I consider myself to be pretty vigilant about preventing unauthorized riders, and I’ve still been caught up on three occasions. Part of the problem is that we have no way to accurately identify who we’re supposed to be picking up. Contrary to popular belief we don’t actually get photos of our passengers on Uber. We do get them on Lyft, but only if they didn’t decide to upload a picture of their dog instead. For these reasons, many drivers advise each other NOT to give out the rider’s name when asked.

One thing I feel is important to point out, and is often overlooked by media reports, is that legitimate TNC drivers are just as concerned for their safety as riders are for theirs. Although to my knowledge no data is kept on the subject, anecdotally speaking Uber and Lyft drivers are more likely to be the victims of a violent attack then the perpetrators of one. Of course the viral video of a drunken executive thrashing an Uber driver got plenty of attention, but multiple other incidents where drivers are assaulted, robbed, or killed barely register on the public’s consciousness. Uber passengers don’t go through any vetting process, as we occasionally have to remind ourselves. A violent felon can’t drive for Uber or Lyft, but there’s nothing preventing one from getting a ride.

So, in order to ensure the safety of passengers and drivers, I recommend a three-step process. First, make sure you have the right car. The license plate is the most fool-proof identifier, but in a busy area you can narrow things down by checking the make and model of the vehicle (the color is sometimes inaccurate for reasons I don’t understand) as well as the color of the Lyft Amp or Uber Beacon if equipped.

Secondly, your driver should be the same person who’s picture is displayed on your app.

Thirdly, ask the driver’s name to make sure it matches what’s on your app. Any driver should be fine with answering this immediately. They may then ask for your name, which you can then give so that they can verify that they have the right passenger. If someone else requested the ride for you, you may need to give the name of the account holder. Uber actually does have a built-in call-for-a-friend feature in their app, but not everyone knows how to properly use it. In a really confusing scenario, you may have to show each other your apps to confirm identities, but these are rare occasions.

Once you’ve done the three-step check and decided that it’s safe to get in the car, use the apps to tell a friend where you are. Uber and Lyft offer features that allow friends or family to track the progress of your ride in real time.

FInally, don’t be lazy. To my surprise, riders have mentioned that they can’t be bothered to perform these most basic safety checks. The in-app notification that was sent out reminding riders to double-check the license plate and vehicle info the car they’re climbing into was dismissed without a glance by one rider I talked to who later claimed that walking around to the back of a car to check the license plate (19 U.S. states don’t require front plates) was too much of a hassle. If your life isn’t worth an extra five to ten seconds of your time, then I really don’t know what is.

Sekani Wright is an experienced TNC driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or at @djsekani on Twitter. Have a safe trip!