Uber now forbids its drivers from flirting with passengers, a move that could make the ridesharing service less of a hardship for women who use it.
New guidelines released on Thursday tell riders and drivers alike, “please don’t comment on someone’s appearance or ask whether they are single. … And don’t touch or flirt with other people in the car.”
Just about every woman I know has a horror story about an Uber driver who stared too long, asked questions about her love life, or wanted to “keep in touch” after the ride was over. After one Boston.com reporter told Uber that a driver had offered her oral sex and locked the doors to keep her from getting out at her destination, the company offered her ride credits as an apology but refused to tell her whether the man was still allowed to ferry other passengers around.
In October, professors from MIT, Stanford, and the University of Washington published a study that reported widespread racial discrimination among drivers; Boston drivers canceled rides for male passengers with “black-sounding names” more than two times as often as they did for other men. The study also found that, with female passengers, drivers would be extra “chatty” and take them on circuitous, elongated routes to make more money and take advantage of a woman as a “captive audience.”
Now, according to the new Uber terms, drivers and riders could get banned from the service for “asking overly personal questions, using verbal threats, and making comments or gestures that are aggressive, sexual, discriminatory, or disrespectful.” Riders could even get banned for texting or visiting a fellow Uber Pool passenger after their ride was over. Uber bans all sexual contact between drivers and passengers, “no matter what.”
The new anti-flirting guideline is one good way to try to prevent harassment and uncomfortable, unsafe passenger experiences. But its efficacy depends on drivers’ self-awareness—an asset I’m not confident most flirtatious offenders possess. I suspect it’s far more likely that men who make women feel queasy with unwelcome questions and comments either don’t see their behavior as objectionable or don’t care.
What's more, the definition of flirt is too broad to enforce a total ban. If a driver talks nonstop at a female rider but lets a male rider sit in peace, is he flirting? If he, like one of my drivers, provides an unbidden recap of the sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump and insists that women who allege rape just want money or attention, are his comments “sexual, discriminatory, or disrespectful”? Here’s a better idea: Ban all talking that doesn’t have to do with driving directions or climate control. Flirters will find themselves unable to creep, and women who want a moment alone with their thoughts won’t have to politely offer one-word answers until he gets the hint.