It seems like every week there are mainstream media reports of rideshare drivers preying on their unsuspecting victims.
One tabloid even claims the biggest rideshare company of them all, Uber, is hit with two sexual assault or misconduct claims every day.
Some of these tabloids – such as The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald – will claim drivers acted unjustifiably rudely and aggressively towards their passengers, cancelling rides and leaving vulnerable victims stranded in the middle of nowhere, with no reception or battery to make a phone call.
The reports will frequently be entirely derived from information release to the public by the NSW Police Force and its officers who all-too often ‘shoot first and ask questions later’; in other words, who press criminal charges based solely on the accounts of intoxicated complainants, accounts that are often later disproved by video footage which shows the driver did nothing at all wrong – that any response was in self-defence or there was no sexual act as claimed.
In these cases, it’s a good bet that the true situation won’t be covered by the tabloids when the evidence comes to light, leaving in tatters the reputations and careers of drivers – as well as their financial circumstances.
Or alternatively, the acquittal will be reported as occurring through some sort of legal technicality – a ‘loophole’ – thereby somehow justifying the initial reporting.
That said, there are cases where rideshare drivers have indeed been guilty of criminal conduct, bringing into question the lack of regulation in the industry – one where those entrusted to take us home are perhaps not as scrutinised as professional drivers in the taxi industry.
So, what’s to be made of all of this? And is it worth getting an Uber rather than a taxi?
The growth of ridesharing
The rideshare industry has been steadily growing over the past decade and is here to stay, with the first dominant rise of Uber, followed by others in its shadow like Lyft, Ola and other competitors.
They took on established taxi and limousine companies worldwide, breaking ground, offering less expensive and more flexible travel options backed by GPS technology and ease of convenience.
An honour system of driver and passenger ratings is in place to ensure your sharing a car with reputable and trustworthy person.
More still, it’s been an invaluable source of primary and supplementary income for countless numbers of people.
The cost of living has gone up with record inflation, increased mortgage payments hitting our wallets, and unemployment levels at a low. Everybody is working to pay their way, including taking on more jobs such as rideshare and Airtasker gigs.
Not only is it an additional source of income, but rideshare jobs have also been supporting many newly arrived immigrants to our country, who often struggle to find traditional sources of income.
Australia prides itself on open multi-culturalism. Our government advertises overseas to students to take up tertiary studies here, boosting our economy. We have always offered new opportunities with successive waves of immigration, promising an egalitarian society on our shores.
But how do we fare in protecting rideshare drivers and passengers?
Being accused of a criminal offence can be devastating
You may be surprised to hear a lot of these incidents between rideshare drivers and passengers end up in the criminal justice system.
A common scenario, one which makes for a scandalous media headline, is when a rideshare driver is arrested for allegedly sexually touching or assaulting a passenger.
It’s a nightmare scenario. It’s horrible for the passenger if it turns out to be true.
For the rideshare driver on the other hand facing an unfair and untrue accusation, it means suspension of rideshare work until an internal investigation is complete, meaning weeks without income or pay.
There is often no income insurance, since that only attaches to certain types of superannuation arrangements. The bills pile up. The police become involved. Bail conditions are given to you, meaning you can’t leave the state to visit your friends or family overseas (or even interstate) until your court case finishes many months down the track.
Work becomes nearly impossible to find as you have an active court case showing up on your criminal background check, meaning no employer wants to touch you. Your friends and family shun you if it’s reported in the media, asking ‘Is it true?’ or ‘How could you do this?’.
Besides that, the stress and anxiety of a court case and the thought of going to gaol would cause anyone to go nuts.
For foreign workers and newly arrived immigrants in the rideshare industry, they are even more vulnerable. Many assaults on immigrant workers go unreported since they may be unaccustomed to local laws, customs and practices.
They fear a police report might instead get themselves in trouble. Having no work or sponsor spells visa troubles down the road.
The threat of a court case affecting your visa could ultimately lead to a person spending months inside a detention centre until their court case is finished. Court cases also now take longer to finish because the COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc on wait times in the court lists.
Rideshare drivers are left to pay their own legal bills. Meanwhile other professions, such a police officers, are protected with paid leave and a common legal fund to defend themselves when there’s a criminal accusation made against them.
This is the result of generations of police union activity.
Rideshare drivers have no such protection, being independent contractors for the most part.
Respect ride-share drivers
By law, section 21A of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) provides heavier sanctions against people who assault or commit criminal offences against rideshare or taxi drivers, given they are ‘exercising public functions as part of the victim’s occupation’.
The same heavier sanctions apply to persons who commit a criminal offence against a police officer, paramedic, judicial officer, teacher or community worker.
Other than the above, there are not many protections provided to rideshare drivers. Their workplace, their own private vehicle, is a place rife with potential conflict.
Whether it be an aggressive, drunken or drug affected passenger, or conversely a driver who is rude, disgruntled and driving in a manner that makes a passenger feel helpless and overpowered – car safety in the rideshare industry is in need of greater regulation.
Protecting oneself as a passenger
In the context of a criminal case, whether you’re a passenger or driver, the answer is remarkably simple.
If practicable, video record what occurs inside the vehicle when you apprehend conflict or danger. In court, video and audio footage serves as powerful evidence of the truth, especially when two persons have differing views and accounts of what happened.
Do not record the other person in a way that aggravates or makes the other person angrier. A court can more easily decide the truth of what occurred based on the words spoken, the tone and manner of speaking by both person, the physical actions of the persons, the timing of the footage, along with all the other evidence presented in court.
All mobile phones now have video and audio record functions which make it easier to record.
Dash cams, including inward facing in-car cameras equipped with audio, are readily available at most electronics stores.
Of course there are limitations with video evidence, as not all important events are captured on video, and commonly events happen before video recording commences. This is perhaps why greater regulation is needed in the sphere of rideshare car safety, such as regulations requiring rideshare drivers to install in-car cameras.
Some taxi companies already install in-car cameras as part of their fleets.
The Surveillance Devices Act 2007
Under the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NSW), it is unlawful to record another person by video or audio without the person’s consent and if the conversation is expected to be private and not broadcasted.
This may create legal issues with using such video evidence in a criminal court case.
The legislation however creates an exception that allows the recording of such video if it is ‘reasonably necessary for the protection of the lawful interests of that principal party’.
In a court case, after legal argument, such video evidence can be admissible and used in court.
Accused of a criminal offence?
If you have been accused of a criminal offence, call our law firm for accurate advice and strong legal representation from lawyers who care about their clients, and will fight for the just outcome using our specialist knowledge and many years of experience.
Receive all of our articles weekly
Vinny Vijay is a Senior Associate with Sydney Criminal Lawyers who provides the highest level of service to his clients. He has many years of experience in criminal defence and an exceptional track record of successfully fighting and winning serious and complex criminal cases.