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Opinion Ride-hailing apps encourage distracted driving. Why aren’t we pumping the brakes?

Ashley Nunes studies transportation safety and regulatory policy at MIT’s Center for Transportation & Logistics

Seconds count. That’s the message Uber is sending millions of its customers. The ride-hailing giant recently introduced a panic feature on its rider app. Press it and you will instantly be connected to local first responders. The feature also gives emergency personnel access to details of your trip, most notably, your exact location.

The goal? To ensure that riders can “get help quickly with accurate information if faced with an emergency situation.”

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The rollout is an attempt to revamp Uber’s image. The company has in recent years been dogged by allegations of misconduct. It was fined millions after state investigators found company drivers with criminal records were ferrying passengers around. Its operating licence was pulled by the City of London amid concerns over how the company reports offences. And a recent class-action lawsuit alleges that Uber has done “nothing meaningful” to make rides safer.

Now Uber is using technology to fight back a move the company’s chief calls, “just the beginning.” That’s the right sentiment. Because when it comes to rider safety, Uber, and indeed all ride-hailing companies, have largely neglected their most widespread problem – namely, distracted driving.

The success of ride hailing depends on using mobile apps. For riders, this entails simply punching in your destination (the app already knows where you are). For drivers, however, ride-hailing apps demand behaviour that can at best be considered questionable and, at worst, inherently unsafe.

It starts with getting a fare. When a ride request comes in, a driver’s smartphone will both flash and start beeping. From that point, the driver has seconds – in the case of Uber, 15 seconds – to accept the request. Doing so requires that the driver physically tap the screen. Here’s the thing: Ride requests can (and do) come in at any time, including while the vehicle is moving. This means that in order to secure a fare, drivers must take their hands off the wheel. See the problem?

It doesn’t stop there. Once a rider is in the car, drivers must once again turn to their smartphone, this time for directions. Uber describes its offering as a “redesigned navigation experience built around drivers’ needs.” This experience – and others like it – relies on proprietary algorithms that comb through piles of real-time data (think road closures, accident reports and traffic patterns) in a bid to figure out the most direct route. That route is then presented to the driver via colourful lines and arrows on mere inches of digital real estate. The result? No wasted gas, fewer delays and a happy rider.

The problem? Time spent staring at a smartphone is time spent not focusing on the road. Research shows that engaging in such behaviour for as little as two seconds can affect a driver’s ability to spot danger, significantly increasing the risk of a crash. What’s worse, drivers are typically unaware of these risks and hence likely to continue with such behaviour. This raises the question: How much time do drivers – backed up by ride-hailing apps – spend staring at their smartphones instead of the road as they ferry passengers around?

The answer is that no one really knows, since data on this issue is lacking. What is known is that in a bid to raise productivity, the ride-hailing industry is now turning to voice-control features. These systems allow hands- (and eye-)free interaction with a smartphone so drivers can focus on driving. More driving equals bigger payouts.

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The problem? Research shows that even using your voice to control a smartphone can be distracting. So distracting, in fact, that it can – subsequent to using such features – take up to 27 seconds to regain awareness of your driving environment. In that time, a car travelling at 40 km an hour would cover the length of three football fields.

Opposition to ride hailing has, thus far, centered around jobs losses. The likes of Uber and Lyft, we are told, steal employment away from long-time taxi drivers. But that’s the wrong argument, particularly given that evidence in favour of such reasoning remains mixed. What is clear is that ride-hailing technology encourages distracted driving. And that should worry all Canadians.

In Ontario alone, one person is injured every half-hour owing to driver distractions. Moreover, fatalities stemming from these events have doubled since 2000. The result? Millions spent to cover economic losses and societal harm, coupled with untold emotional hardship on families. Ride-hailing apps simply exacerbate this problem by encouraging behaviour proven to be unsafe.

Canadians deserve better. Until ride-hailing companies can pay more than lip service to the issue of driver distraction, their operations should be curbed. Our lives depend on it.

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