Gregory Jones has developed a mental checklist after four incidents made him the most concerned about his safety he’s been in six years as a driver for the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft.
After the Baltimore Police Department started investigating a string of ride-hailing robberies over the Thanksgiving holiday, Jones said he’s been more “situationally aware” while out on his trips.
“I quit the cab business because that was outright dangerous, and when I heard about Uber, I joined them and sold my cab,” Jones said. “Uber and Lyft have been pretty good over the years, but sometimes you get that feeling of who’s a troublemaker and who’s a regular guy.”
He looks at the arrival destination and double checks a customer’s identity to feel comfortable. Communication between riders is also a telltale sign of a smooth trip, he said. And if needed, for his own sake, Jones adjusts his rearview mirror to have a better view of customers if he feels uneasy.
Another driver, Mohammed Tariq, has driven with Uber for 10 years, and he explained his frustration with the ride-hailing company’s safety policies, saying the response to any incident is always just an email with tips to drivers.
”They didn’t do anything in the past, they aren’t doing anything now,” Tariq said.
Tariq also said that the company’s lack of action and failure to provide drivers with benefits shows Uber cares only about profit. Drivers and customers must protect themselves, he said.
Baltimore Police said in a string of recent incidents, ride-hailing service drivers have been carjacked, and the robbers went on to use the app to pick up customers and rob them as well.
Police said they have made several arrests and are working with federal officials on the cases, but they declined to provide specifics.
“Detectives have connected with multiple vendors and are working to investigate these cases and have payments reversed, when applicable,” BPD said in a statement, later adding, “These are active and ongoing investigations.”
A spokesperson for the department said 598 carjackings have been recorded as of Dec. 1, compared to 508 such incidents at the same time last year. But the he agency also “does not differentiate carjackings in separate categories,” like ride-hailing services or hack drivers versus motorists.
Both Uber and Lyft have driver safety tips on their websites. Features include 24/7 incident support, GPS tracking from start to finish, phone anonymization, sensors and GPS data to detect when a trip goes off course, and more.
In a statement to The Banner Friday afternoon, Uber said that the recent “reported attacks are horrifying.”
”We’re in close touch with law enforcement to support their continued investigation and worked with them to send safety tips to riders and drivers in the Baltimore area,” the company said. “We encourage users to cancel trips if they don’t feel safe and remind riders to always double-check the details of their ride — driver name and photo, car make and model, and license plate — before getting in.”
Police also advised customers to confirm those details of their rides.
“If there’s inconsistency, such as multiple people in the vehicle, please don’t get in the vehicle,” police said. “Instead, immediately notify police (911) and the appropriate ride-share company.”
A Lyft spokesperson also issued a statement to The Banner Friday afternoon, saying “the safety of our community is fundamental to Lyft.”
“The incident described is deeply troubling and we have permanently removed the rider profile from the Lyft community,” the company said. “We have reached out to the driver to offer our support and are assisting law enforcement with their investigation.”
The Banner spoke with 14 ride-hailing app users in Baltimore on Friday. Many had not previously heard about the robberies but said the news was concerning. But those incidents wouldn’t impact how often most use the services, they said.
“That’s very scary,” said Anthony Jenkins, who was born and raised in Baltimore. He takes Uber occasionally and feels the company should implement more measures to protect both drivers and riders.
“Maybe they should put cameras inside every vehicle,” he said.
Or, he said, Uber should require drivers to input the last four digits of their Social Security number, or another piece of information, in order to verify their identity before each ride.
“Uber needs to do something about this,” he said, adding that many of the employees at his massage business take Ubers, and that he is going to “drive them home tonight.”
But the incidents won’t deter him from using the service, as he feels he can protect himself.
Claudia Datnow, who was about to get a ride in Fells Point, said she’d heard about the robberies on the news. But she already tries to take precautions when getting into a Lyft or Uber, including sending someone her location while on a trip and checking the license plate. She also usually takes rides during the day and not during the night, she said.
“I just try to stay vigilant,” she said, moments later stepping into a Lyft.
Cam Steger and Sylvie Wilson, both Johns Hopkins students, hadn’t previously heard about the robberies before speaking with The Banner, but were alarmed.
“It makes me feel like I shouldn’t take Ubers and Lyfts,” Wilson said. But, both agreed it’s often the only form of transportation available, so they likely won’t cut down on the amount they use the service.
“Sometimes you have to use it,” Wilson said. “Especially because public transportation doesn’t always run.”
Steger and Wilson agreed they may be more alert when using ride-hailing services, though.
The two already take some precautions, they said, such as making sure the driver says their name before getting into the car, or to check the license plate.
Wilson said in the future she may take off her jewelry or leave her wallet behind when getting into an Uber.
Jones, who drives for both Lyft and Uber, said the benefits of working for the ride-hailing companies don’t mean much if he isn’t able to make it back to his family at the end of the day.
“The ones who want to do wrong already have half a mind to do it and puts us [drivers] at a disadvantage before we can even accept the job,” he said.
“I have to stay alert,” he added, “because all of this means nothing if I can’t make it back home.”
Baltimore Banner reporter Alissa Zhu contributed to this article.