Opinion: The Other Side of Uber

Most BC students don’t think twice when calling for an Uber. The process is simple enough: open your app, put in your destination, accept the surge price and click request. In a few minutes, your Uber driver will call you to announce his arrival, and you and your friends will pile into the backseat, ask for the aux cord and zoom towards your destination. Simple and convenient, right?

What many people don’t know is that it’s as easy to become an Uber driver as it is to request one. Uber only requires its drivers to have a personal license and registration, be over 21 and own vehicle that is less than 10 years old. While Uber does claim to do background checks on its drivers, it is incredibly easy for one person to file as an Uber driver and another to do the actual driving, so long as they have the app open in their car. So when you get in that Toyota Camry with “Jim R.”, you actually have no idea who’s behind the wheel, and neither does Uber.

In addition, Uber does not provide commercial insurance for its drivers, as is legally required for transportation services. Instead, it relies on the driver’s personal insurance to cover passengers. However, most insurance companies stipulate in their agreements that, if you drive someone for pay, you are not covered by your insurance during that time. What this means is that if your Uber driver only has personal insurance and gets into an accident while driving you to your destination, his insurance won’t pay you a cent.

Uber gets away with all of this because it calls itself a technology company rather than a driving service. It claims that it simply connects riders with drivers through its app and therefore has no liability or obligation to protect its customers. Uber drivers are independent contractors, not Uber employees. The fact of the matter is, however, that Uber is so good at breaking the law that people don’t care. This semester, I have had two separate professors bring up the glaring safety and ethical issues of Uber in my classes, and while most of my classmates agreed that what Uber does is problematic, none expressed any interest in taking a cab instead.

The good news is that in Massachusetts, there is a bill in the State House right now sponsored by Governor Charlie Baker to allow for more state supervision on transportation network companies. The law would require Uber and other ride-sharing services to obtain a commercial license from the state and put their drivers through two background checks, one by the company itself and one by the government. Massachusetts would retain the right to ban drivers who do not pass those checks. In addition, ride-sharing services would have to pay an annual tax, maintain insurance for their drivers and inspect their cars annually. This legislation is endorsed by Boston mayor Marty Walsh and Uber.

Whether this bill passes or not, it’s become pretty clear that, despite its problems, Uber is here to stay. I think that this can be largely attributed to the college students who request its services every weekend. Uber not only created a product that fills a need in a new way, it also played upon the mentality of the typical college student to make its product popular. Commonly referred to as the “invincibility complex,” teenagers and young adults often don’t feel that they are susceptible to risk or danger, especially if everyone else is doing it. It’s the typical “it won’t happen to me” mentality, and in an intense college environment, our desire to escape stress and fit in with the crowd can lead to careless behavior.

At BC, we spend five days a week writing papers, studying for exams, working out, attending club meetings and volunteering. Eating and sleeping become luxuries, not priorities. Come Friday night, we shut our brains off and abandon our inhibitions. We drink too much and stay out too late and generally make poor decisions. But every Sunday morning, we find ourselves still in one piece. And so our behavior is reinforced. When deciding what to do on the weekends, many college kids look to their peers. If everyone is using Uber, it can’t be that dangerous, right?

Uber plays on this invincibility complex. It knows that we see the world through a very narrow lens. We don’t factor in long-term consequences or potential dangers when we make decisions, not for lack of education but for lack of experience. For example, everyone heard about the string of attacks by Uber drivers on their unsuspecting female passengers, especially the ones that happened in Boston. But most of us at BC have never been attacked in an Uber, nor have our friends. Our worldview is clouded by our limited personal experience and our relatively safe environment. Why bother to check the driver’s picture to make sure he is who he says he is? Why not squeeze six people into the backseat, even though no one can get buckled? It’s never happened to me, so it won’t.

It shouldn’t take a traumatic experience to make us aware that we’re not invincible. I too am guilty of using Uber, and I don’t think that it should be abolished completely. We live in a capitalist society where good ideas that meet consumer demand are rewarded, and Uber has a great idea. Rather, I’m arguing that we, as Boston College students, owe it to ourselves to be as smart on the weekend as we are in the classroom. We owe it to ourselves not to throw away our amazing education and opportunities for convenience and purported invincibility.

It’s not that hard to wear a seatbelt, to check the driver’s name and photo, and always to travel with friends. It’s not outrageous to demand safety from the services we use, especially when they charge us absurd surge prices. As insulated as we may feel within our own little BC bubble, the reality is that our futures are uncertain and insecure. The best we can do is make good decisions with the information at our disposal and throw our support (and limited cash) behind companies that have our best interests at heart as much as their own.

 

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Jacqueline Carney