NEW YORK -- For years, Lyft has been the good guy of ride-hailing. In early days, its cars were adorned with whimsical pink mustaches. Its founders talked about improving peoples’ lives by reducing individual car ownership. And while Uber drivers grabbed headlines for assaulting passengers, somehow — despite many drivers working for both companies — Lyft remained unscathed.
That changed when dozens of women filed lawsuits against Lyft in recent months, claiming that they were sexually assaulted by the company’s drivers. The women said Lyft did not do enough to keep them safe, and several said that when they reported the incidents, Lyft did little or nothing to make it right.
“They didn’t even really say sorry at all. They just said, ‘OK, well we’re going to send you your money back,’” said Caroline Miller, 21, who says she was raped by a Lyft driver after a night out celebrating her birthday. “I didn’t even get an email. It was crazy. They kind of just pushed it under the rug, and were like, ‘whatever.’”
Miller is one of 19 women who jointly filed a lawsuit against Lyft in December. They argued Lyft could have done more to protect passengers by requiring in-car video monitoring and conducting fingerprint-based background checks, and they said Lyft does not adequately investigate customer complaints of sexually inappropriate behavior.
Lyft declined an interview for the story but spokeswoman Ashley Adams said in an email, “Not a day passes when we aren't thinking about the safety of our platform.”
Adams said Lyft launched more than 15 new safety features in the past few months, including in-app emergency assistance, continuous criminal background monitoring of drivers and mandatory feedback for rides rated less than four stars.
“We know this work is never done, which is why we continue to invest in new products, policies and features to make Lyft an even safer platform for our community,” Adams said.
The lawsuits are chipping away at the image of corporate responsibility that Lyft carefully cultivated as its larger rival, Uber, slogged through scandals in recent years. When Uber's former CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after accusations of rampant sexual harassment inside the company in 2017, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer told the New York Times, "There’s nothing to celebrate in this situation.” But, he added, “it does shine a light on the importance of values and ethics.”
Now some are questioning how deep those values and ethics go. Organizations that work with sexual assault victims are applauding Uber's efforts to tackle safety issues after the company released a long-awaited report that revealed 464 people, mostly riders, reported that they were raped while using its services in 2017 and 2018. Meanwhile, Lyft has largely remained silent on its own issues with assault, noting that it, too, will release a safety transparency report but hasn't said when.
“Lyft has seen this coming, and they should have acted more aggressively before now," said Richard Levick, a crisis communication expert in Washington. “You cannot take the woke position, you cannot take a mercantile activism position, and not mean it."
“Lyft was the non-frat culture alternative to Uber,” Levick added. "If that’s who you are, how can safety be an afterthought?”
Lyft has run promotions with bars and beer companies to offer free or discounted drinks to customers who show the Lyft app and say they plan to hail a ride home. Some of Lyft's promotions advertised, “Drink up. We’re driving," and promised, “We partnered with select local bars to get you home safe.”
“Most women saw the pink mustache and thought that’s a safer ride home because they said that," said Rachel Abrams, an attorney who represents about 100 clients suing Lyft. "They didn’t do anything to actually make themselves the safer ride home.”
When choosing between Uber and Lyft, many riders go with the cheaper or quicker option. Others are swayed by perceptions about safety.
“If prices are comparable I will always go with Lyft,” said rider Leila Sherbini, 25, of Austin, Texas. “For no real reason I can name, I somehow feel a bit safer in Lyfts.”
Alison Turkos was among the many people who deleted the Uber app in 2017 because of reports of internal sexual harassment at the company. But later that year when she took a Lyft after a night out with friends, she was kidnapped at gunpoint, driven across state lines and gang-raped by the driver and at least two other men, she said.
“I thought I was being a good feminist that night by choosing Lyft, Uber wasn’t on my phone at the time,” Turkos said. “But look where it got me, look where my good and safe decision landed me.”
Some attorneys who represent survivors of sexual assaults that happened in both Lyft and Uber vehicles suspect the safety problems at Lyft may be worse than at Uber, based on the number of cases they have, the companies' relative size and the severity of the incidents.
“The fact that people perceive Lyft as safer is just ignorance,” said Michael Bomberger, founding partner at Estey & Bomberger, a firm that represents more than 50 riders who say they were assaulted by Lyft drivers and 50 to 100 who say they were assaulted by Uber drivers.
Another rape survivor, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had fallen asleep in the back of a Lyft car after a night out drinking and woke to the driver molesting her from the front seat. Fearing for her life and thinking of her 7-year-old son, she fought back. The driver pulled over on a dark street and they somehow tumbled out of the car. Her arm was caught in the vehicle as he eventually drove away, dragging her body on the pavement. She broke free and crawled to a nearby house where a woman answered the door and helped her.
After reporting the incident to Lyft, she never heard whether the driver was deactivated, she said. That kept her up at night, since the driver knew where she lived.
“If there was a camera in the car that night, I can almost guarantee that nothing would have happened," she said. “I think Lyft has done a super, super great job hiding all of this." The Associated Press does not name sexual assault victims who wish to remain anonymous.
Lyft says any driver involved in an incident is immediately disabled and not allowed to drive until the issue has been adjudicated. The company also may put a hold on any community member involved. Lyft also said it's committed to share information with the industry about drivers who are deactivated.
Lyft said drivers must pass initial background checks including a social security number trace, nationwide criminal search, county court records search, federal criminal court records search and a U.S. Department of Justice 50-state sex offender registry search.
Critics say Lyft should also require potential drivers to submit fingerprints because a Social Security number can be faked. Lyft says the fingerprint database is incomplete and discriminates against minorities because it includes incomplete arrest records, rather than just convictions, and minorities are far more likely to be arrested and listed in the database even if they had been later cleared of charges.
Both Lyft and Uber are struggling to turn a profit and are beset by challenges including a new law in California that could require both companies to treat drivers as employees. The growing safety problems are another challenge to surmount, but it's unclear whether ridership will decline as a result.
After a plane crashes, airline stocks dip, then rebound, and ticket sales follow a similar pattern, said Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. Lyft's ridership may follow a similar trajectory after the lawsuits. “Sadly, I don't think it will have much of an impact,” Chow said.
Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.
Follow Cathy Bussewitz on Twitter: @cbussewitz