Commentary: What Happened to ‘Don’t Get in Cars With Strangers?’

By Tim Culpan, Bloomberg Opinion | January 22, 2019

On the morning of March 26, 2018, my colleague Yoolim Lee ordered a Grab ride in Singapore. Within hours, she was lying in hospital with a fractured vertebrae and a vertebral artery dissection.

Her story, published in the Jan. 19 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek, is the result of what happens when a deeply personal incident collides with journalistic curiosity. Lee’s tale also brings to the fore something about the ride-hailing industry that’s been sitting in the subconscious of many executives, regulators and consumers: What about safety?

Uber Technogies Inc. co-founder Travis Kalanick became famous for ignoring regulations in order to plow head first into new markets. The old ways, the thinking went, were outmoded. Traditional taxi operators were mere monopolies, and consumers deserved to have more choice and lower prices.

It’s a compelling argument.

One of the reasons for Grab Holdings Inc.’s founding was to provide customers a safe way to get home late at night in Kuala Lumpur. Co-founder Tan Hooi Ling was herself part of the target market for the product she was building with Anthony Tan.

But as Lee points out in her story, Singapore has cut the amount of training required to get a taxi license from 60 hours to 25 hours. Private-hire drivers need even less: just 10 hours, two of which can be “self-study.”

What’s more, drivers applying for a mandatory vocational license were allowed a one-year grace period before July 2017. The result: Only half of the 42,900 private-hire drivers actually got a license within that time frame. Her conclusion: Half of these drivers shouldn’t have been on the road.

Data for ride-hailing, and its impact on road safety, are all over the place. Professors Angela Dills and Sean Mulholland of Western Carolina University found in a 2017 paper that the entrance of Uber into a country correlates with a lowering of the rate of drunk driving and fatal accidents.

Conversely, researchers at the University of Chicago and Rice University published a paper last year that found the arrival of ride-sharing is associated with an increase of about 3 percent in the number of motor vehicle fatalities and fatal accidents. Both papers were based on U.S. data. Implications for Southeast Asia may differ, though there’s a lack of reliable data.

Transport safety isn’t the only issue. Assault, including sexual assault, is another topic that deserves close attention given the number of incidents that have been reported globally, including in India and China.

Grab, Uber and rivals got their start by railing against taxis and their regulatory protection. But taxi drivers, in most jurisdictions, have stricter standards for training and licensing.

Whether valid or not, ride-hailing services are now getting a reputation for being less safe. If companies are serious about wanting to prove and improve their safety, they need to publish data.

Public data on training or traffic accidents involving ride-hailing vehicles won’t save you if your driver falls asleep at the wheel, or assaults you late at night on a dark road. But it can help keep operators accountable and push them to do better.

When a company lists on a stock exchange, it’s required to report financial results regularly that follow industry standards. Since stakeholders use such data to make decisions on whether to own the shares, this incentivizes executives to improve financial performance.

The same should be done for car services, including taxi operators. It’s not good enough to have such information on file for the private use of executives, and released only upon request by journalists. After I asked, Grab provided some basic information on Monday that showed its accident rate was lower than the legally prescribed level for taxis in Singapore.

The company is looking to share the information more proactively this year, it said by email. That would be a good step, and I hope it won’t fall short of being consistent and standardized.

The aviation industry collates and publishes regular data through its STEADES database, allowing airlines not only to benchmark themselves but to work together to improve safety. Air travel is far safer today, and we all understand the industry much better, thanks to this approach. Ride-hailing companies don’t seem to take the issue as seriously, yet we tend to spend more time in private-hire cars and taxis than in aircraft.

When we were kids, we were all taught not to get into a car with strangers. Today, we’re doing just that with increasing frequency.

Regular data would at least let us get to know those strangers a little better.

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