Brittney Sundquist got into a Lyft on an early Friday morning after leaving a bar on Telegraph Avenue. But, as she would later recount in a widely-shared Facebook post, instead of driving her home to East Oakland, the male Lyft driver veered off of the planned route and attempted to drive her into a “desolate location in the Oakland hills.” Although she doesn’t remember exact details of what happened next, she wrote, Sundquist was able to break free from the car and escape, running into the dark forest.
Now she wants to spread the message about the hazards women, children and other vulnerable populations face when they decide to take a ride from a ride-sharing app, like Uber or Lyft. Her modus operandi: Taking to social media to write about her experience and, with the help of her close friend, starting an online petition to increase safety for Lyft riders.
On August 25, Sundquist’s friend and roommate Amanda Wood started a petition for Lyft to add an option that riders could select if they prefer to have a female driver. Wood, who also drives for Lyft, wrote on the petition’s website that “children, queer/trans folk, and anyone who feels vulnerable should have the option to select a female driver to minimize the risk of experiencing violence, which statistics show is significantly more likely to be perpetrated by men.”
“If you pay attention,” Wood said in a phone interview on Saturday, “you know that trans folk, and also people who are queer or gender non-conforming or non-binary, are also unfortunately targeted by violence at much higher rates than the average person.”
By Monday morning, 13,850 people had signed the petition.
Oakland Police Department Public Information Officer Johnna Watson confirmed this case is an active investigation but has not supplied further details.
Sundquist confirmed that Oakland police contacted her on August 29 to inform her that a detective had been assigned to her case. That detective interviewed her the following day.
“I was really actually pleased with OPD’s behavior throughout,” Wood said. “They were very empathetic towards Brittney.”
While the women’s petition has garnered thousands of signatures, it’s not clear if Lyft executives will decide to make any changes to their app.
“What is being described is horrific,” wrote Kate Margolis, corporate communications lead for Lyft, in an email. “We have reached out to the passenger to extend our full support and the driver has been permanently banned from the Lyft platform. We stand ready to assist law enforcement with their investigation.” But Margolis did not comment on whether company officials are considering any new safety features.
“Although all of their comments to me have been very supportive,” Sundquist said, she feels that Lyft has not been “as forthcoming as they make it appear.”
“They need a subpoena to release any information about the driver, even regarding his last name,” Sundquist said, “and they won’t say anything to the police even about why they fired him, specifically.”
“I’m in a place now where I don’t really know what’s going to happen, if anything. I just think that that’s kind of silly that they’re making it seem like they’ll be super, super helpful and they have all of this information, but they aren’t releasing it,” she continued.
And Wood isn’t sure if her petition will encourage Lyft to roll out a female driver option. “I hate to say it, but I’m not super hopeful that they will adopt this,” she said.
Asked to comment on his competing company’s security measures and protocols for dealing with similar incidents, Andrew Hasbun, Uber’s senior communications associate for safety, declined to respond to written questions, adding, “Nobody is available for an interview.”
Sundquist’s allegation is not the first against a ride-sharing driver for abducting a passenger—something that the industry’s competitors have been quick to point out. Worldwide, there have been at least 393 alleged sexual assaults since 2013 and 23 alleged kidnappings since 2014, according to the website Who’s Driving You, an online enterprise of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA), which is a trade association advocating for the “private passenger transportation industry,” according to its website. Its constituents consist of for-hire vehicle drivers and operators (that is, non-ride-sharing ventures).
The TLPA’s stance is that ride-sharing companies should require their drivers to get fingerprint background checks, which are “the gold standard in terms of background checks,” according to spokesman John Boit. He noted that, with the exception of New York City, Uber and Lyft employees are not required to conduct fingerprint background checks for potential drivers. These more rigorous checks are a deterrent to crime because “if you know that you have been fingerprinted you are less likely to commit a crime,” Boit said.
Although these types of crimes tend to be underreported in the media and to police, according to Boit, in California there have been many well-documented incidents of attempted kidnappings or sexual assaults by ride-share drivers. On the very same day that Sundquist alleges she was abducted, August 24, police in Azusa arrested an Uber driver “on suspicion of kidnapping a rider and inappropriately touching her,” according to The San Gabriel Valley Tribune. In May, a Lyft driver in Fremont was charged with three counts of sexual assault, as reported by The San Francisco Chronicle. This summer, a man who had been dubbed the “Rideshare Rapist” was charged in San Francisco on multiple counts of rape by force or violence and rape by use of drugs; kidnapping; sexual penetration by foreign object; false imprisonment; and assault with a deadly weapon and with intent to commit rape, as reported in The Washington Post. He was arraigned in July, and his next hearing will take place on September 10.
While Lyft and Uber representatives did not comment on the specifics of Sundquist’s allegation or on security measures the companies are considering to ensure passenger safety, others in the transit industry were eager to suggest changes and to weigh in on the value of a female driver option.
Harry Campbell, author of The Rideshare Guide (a handbook for current and prospective ride-share drivers) who also goes by the “Rideshare Guy,” said that having this option on apps would ultimately be “beneficial.”
“Most ride-share drivers are male … so you can sort of imagine the male viewpoint is sometimes that having a female driver option might be taking business away from us and that doesn’t seem fair,” Campbell said. “Whereas at the same time, I’ve talked to many female passengers and many female drivers about this issue, and a lot of female passengers and drivers are frankly more comfortable with the same sex.”
Campbell said one of the most common safety mistakes riders make is getting into the wrong cars. He urged riders to check the license plate and make sure it matches the vehicle the app has assigned. For drivers to protect themselves, he suggested using a two-way facing dashcam. “Not only would a dashcam capture any potential incident that happens inside or outside of your car, but it also prevents a lot of bad behavior,” Campbell said.
Evelyn Engel, a San Francisco taxi driver and board member of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, said that “all SF taxis are required to have cameras in their vehicles for the safety of both passengers and drivers. This is a significant deterrent.”
TLPA spokesman Boit added another tip: “Never, ever sit in the front seat. It’s important to have a little bit of physical space between the driver and the passenger.” He also suggested that “if you’re in an unfamiliar city, make sure that you’re tracking on your phone what your route is and to make sure you’re not deviating from that route.”
While ride-sharing companies don’t ask prospective drivers to pass a fingerprint background check, it’s something taxi drivers are required to do. “The process of becoming a taxi driver just takes a little bit longer. It’s not something you can do on an impulse,” said Engel of the taxi union. “It requires a little more commitment of your time. You have to pay for your own fingerprint check. You have to go get your own 10-year DMV printout. These aren’t the kinds of things you can do in a spur of the minute for whatever reason, and I think that has a screening effect, as well.”
“Rideshare Guy” Campbell suggested Uber and Lyft implement an option that drivers could select when applying to drive, opting into a fingerprint background check, which would be listed on their profile if they become a driver. Then riders could select whether or not they want their driver to be someone who has passed the fingerprint background check. “That’s something that Uber can easily build into their product if they wanted to,” said Campbell.
But TLPA spokesman Boit said the ride-sharing companies don’t have an incentive to do this because “if they fingerprint their drivers it totally destroys their business model, and their business model is one in which they have to constantly replenish their driver supply.”
Meanwhile, a ride-sharing company called Safr, which describes itself on its website as “a new ride-sharing service focused on the safety and empowerment of women,” will launch San Francisco operations this fall.
“It is important to offer a choice to women and others who value their safety,” wrote Syed Gilani, founder and CEO of the company, which is based in Boston. “Safr is all about providing that choice to women who wish to drive and ride without getting harassed at any time of day or night. Safr meets with every driver candidate and creates a sense of sisterhood and community by staying in touch with all of its drivers,” he wrote.
When asked how Safr will differ from the competition if Sundquist and Wood’s petition succeeds and Lyft implements a female driver option, Gilani wrote that the difference is about more than “simple tech features,” but rather the “overall user-experience and our adherence to highest quality and safety standards.”
“I don’t really see why they couldn’t do a gender preference option because other ride-sharing companies are already doing it. Why can’t you guys?” asked Wood, referring to Lyft. “You’re one of the most competitive services out there, and you pride yourselves on being very inclusive and diverse and having that kind of progressive company culture.”
Wood said her purpose in starting the petition is not to scare women to “be even more afraid of life and the public and men in the world as they already are.” Wood said she wants women to have hope, knowing that “they’re armed with more knowledge of these kinds of things and people are fighting to try to make it better.”
“We are still empowered,” she continued. “We’re not afraid. We’re not going to be living our lives in a way that is forever traumatized.”
“I’m not really going to live my life in fear forever because something shitty happened,” Sundquist agreed.