Lucy Nicholson/Reuters /Landov
The transportation app Uber matches ride-seekers with drivers. Drivers must keep checking their phones to catch customers, and critics say that may have dangerous consequences on the road. Is Uber responsible for the risk?
A man named Syed Muzaffar drove for Uber, the San Francisco-based company that makes money selling car rides. He lives in a suburb of San Francisco and on New Year's Eve, he says, he was in the city for the sole purpose of picking up partygoers who needed a ride.
His night ended early and tragically, around 8 p.m., when he turned a corner and hit a family in a crosswalk.
"The mother sustained facial fractures," says Police Sgt. Eric Mahoney, who is investigating the case. "The 4-year-old boy suffered abrasions on his face, and the 6-year-old girl was fatally injured."
Last week the surviving victims filed a civil lawsuit in California, saying that Uber is responsible for damages.
Police are still investigating if the driver was using his Uber app while driving, as he claims, and whether that played any role in the collision. Mahoney says it's very possible. Uber drivers have to look at their smartphones constantly, to see when there's a new request for a ride and the customer's GPS location.
"It's easier to ignore a text from a friend until you stop," Mahoney says. "It's a lot harder to ignore a text when that's how you feed your family."
Uber employees declined an interview. A company statement says while the man was an Uber driver, he is an independent contractor, not an employee, and he was not on the clock. The company's million-dollar insurance policy only kicks in when the driver has a passenger.
But lawyer Steven Clark, who is not a party in the suit, says there's a wide open question: "Why is Uber not responsible for that driver who was negligent?"
Uber uses social media to match drivers and passengers. The company also asks drivers to hang out on the streets — especially during peak times like New Year's Eve — so they can respond to new requests quickly. Drivers even get rated by their response time.
"They are out there to derive economic benefit for Uber and for themselves, and therefore if Uber shares in the profits, they should share in the responsibility," Clark says.
Another question the lawsuit raises is whether Uber creates new risks on the road. Ride-sharing could be more safe than taxicabs because drivers get specific, named passengers. It could also be less safe, because drivers have to keep checking their phones.
"I probably glance at my phone, kind of like your rearview mirror-glance, about every six seconds or so," says Kristen Gardner, who joined the ride-sharing industry a few months back. "It's like, rearview mirror, phone, road. Rearview mirror, phone, road."
Uber is a darling in Silicon Valley, valued at about $4 billion.
Clark says the lawsuit could set a new precedent that makes other social media companies suddenly responsible for background checks and damages. Whether it's a car-sharing service or a dating service like Match.com, a lot can go wrong.
"So if someone is injured or killed because they've met someone through a social media site and they've paid a fee for that, are the courts going to take this case and extrapolate it to liability in other social media business models?" Clark asks.
As the lawsuit works its way through court, Uber is racing to add new cities to its ride-sharing fleet.