Can Uber's 'SOS button' make riders feel safer?

After reinstating its presence in India, Uber introduces two new safety features to protect customers from drivers.

Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
Anthony Khoury, head of Middle East and Africa expansions for Uber, displays the application on a mobile photo during an event to celebrate the official launch of the car-hailing service in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Cairo soft launched the company in Nov. 2014. Uber is now in over 270 cities in 55 countries, according to the company.

Uber's ride-hailing service has added two additional safety features for customers in India after once again coming under fire due to a sexual assault allegation against one of its drivers.

Following the charges, Uber and all other web-based taxi services were banned in several cities in India, including the capital, Delhi. Despite frequent claims that is a technology company, not a transportation service, Uber applied for a taxi license and is back in business.

The additional safety features add two levels of security that riders can choose to use.

One is the “send status” feature which allows drivers to send a message providing the driver’s photo, vehicle details, and GPS tracking location to up to five pre-selected emergency contacts. Recipients will then be able to track the location of the car without incurring any additional SMS charges. This is essentially an extension of the “send my ETA (estimated time of arrival)” feature that was added last year.

The second safety precaution is the SOS button. The SOS button appears in the top right of the screen, and if pushed twice – the app asks for a confirmation that you indeed meant to push it– will automatically dial the local authorities.

While these new functions may prove helpful, the larger issue may be with the screening process for drivers in India.

While Uber has claimed that it goes above and beyond the local requirements for screening drivers, but deputy commissioner with the Delhi police Madhur Verma is not convinced. 

"Every violation by Uber will be evaluated and we will go for legal recourse," Verma told Reuters, following the rape allegations in December.

The man accused of raping a passenger in India was a repeat offender and had previously done time in jail for rape. According to the screening standards that Uber employs in the United States, that charge should have ruled him out as a driver.

Uber's policy specifically states that drivers must not have been convicted of any sexual offenses in the past seven years. But Uber does not use the same standards in India. The record of the rapist’s past was there, but Uber didn’t look for it.

Currently the new safety features are only available in India.

Last month, Uber added a safe ride checklist for Boston and Chicago customers after sexual assault complaints from customers in both cities. The feature has yet to be extended to other cities or countries.

It is unclear whether the safety features added in India, or those in Boston and Chicago, will become available in a larger pool of customers.

The blog post in which Uber announced the additions to its India service said “We are proud to pilot these features across all cities in India, and we will roll out additional safety features in other cities and countries in the coming months – stay tuned for updates.”

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