Last week, a 26-year-old Indian woman in the capital, Delhi, alleged that an Uber driver raped her and threatened to kill her if she told the police. The incident has rightfully angered many people in India, but city officials have gone so far as to ban Uber outright. That won't improve safety for the city's taxi-takers. In fact, it will probably make it worse.
The details of the alleged rape are unnerving. The woman fell asleep during her ride and woke up in an isolated part of the city. There, she says, she was raped and beaten by 32-year-old driver Shiv Kumar Yadav. The woman claims that he threatened to rape her with iron bars if she cried out.
Delhi officials are upset at Uber because Yadav had been arrested, though not convicted, of rape three years earlier. They want Uber to run in-depth background checks on all its drivers, as it does for drivers in the United States, before allowing the company to operate in Delhi. But this is easier said than done, for two reasons. First, it’s not clear that India has the technological infrastructure to run those background checks. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that the company would work with government officials to create a background check system "currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programmes." Uber, in other words, intends to help the government create a system. Second, criminals may be able to bypass those checks. Yadav, for instance, reportedly presented a “character certificate” to Uber that was supposedly from the Delhi police department. Delhi’s police chief has said that the certificate is a forgery. But if it’s that easy to create a fake certificate from the police, then the police also deserve some blame.
At Vox, Amanda Taub argues that Uber failed its customers. “Regardless of whether the failure was Uber's or the police department's, however, the result was the same: a system that failed to reveal Yadav's full history, and enabled him to drive for Uber,” she writes. That’s true, but the implications of it matter. If the fault lies with the police department, then the solution must come from better policing policies—something that India has struggled with for years. But if Uber is to blame, then the company must implement new policies immediately to make sure this failure doesn’t happen again. It’s not clear who exactly is at fault here—in all likelihood, both Uber and the Delhi police force deserve blame. But it’s worth examining the potential benefits a service like Uber offers Indians, regardless of this incident.
As Taub explains further in her piece, travelling around India is dangerous, whether via taxi, bus or rickshaw. “Given the choice between taking all of that advice and never leaving my apartment, versus selectively ignoring it and getting on with my day, I chose the latter,” she writes of her time in India. “But finding safe and reliable transportation where and when I needed it was still always a challenge.” Uber offers a new transportation option that offers users at least some ability to hold their drivers accountable for their actions. That doesn’t mean it’s a cure-all. In many cases, Uber’s ability to ensure the safety of its user will rely on the infrastructure already in place. Ultimately, improving that infrastructure is up to the local communities and officials, not Uber.
That doesn’t mean Uber is blameless, but their cars offer one of the safest traveling experiences in India. At least the company has a background check system to speak of, and users have the ability to rate their drivers. With other transportation options—rickshaws or local taxis, for instance—that isn’t necessarily the case. Uber's not perfect, but it's an improvement. This brutal incident doesn’t change that.