A lesson from the airline industry: Uber needs to stop using safety as an advertising slogan
This past weekend, Uber driver Jason Brian Dalton allegedly went on a killing spree, murdering six people and leaving two injured.
The mass-killing was horrifying enough in and of itself, but somehow it was made even more so by the fact that Dalton reportedly continued to accept Uber rides between each murder. He had reportedly been driving dangerously for some time before the killings: Several of Dalton’s passengers have described his erratic driving, including blowing through stop signs, driving over grass verges and travelling at 80 miles per hour in residential areas . The New York Times reports that Dalton had already received “bad reviews” from passengers.
Uber confirmed that Dalton had passed its standard background checks.
Whenever an Uber driver is accused of assaulting a passenger, supporters of the company are quick to point out that taxi drivers commit crimes too. That’s certainly true. You can waste a lot of time trying to prove whether any given Uber is any more or less safe than any given cab. So let’s stay away from that one, for today at least.
Here’s what we can say with total certainty: After this weekend’s attacks Uber has to stop claiming that its rides are inherently safer than regular cabs.
For a long time, the company and its executives have been claiming that taking an Uber all but guarantees you will arrive home safely, certainly more safely than using a regular cab. "A safer ride," became both an advertising slogan and a revenue driver: The company added a $1 "safe ride" fee to all rides, which it said covered:
Federal, state and local background checks, regular motor vehicle screenings, driver safety education, current and future development of safety features in the app, and more.
That fee, and the "we're safer" advertising message, came under attack recently when a group of cab drivers sued the company for false advertising, arguing that regular cabs were just as safe as Uber. The suit was settled when Uber agreed to rename its “safe ride fee” as a “booking fee” and to cease claiming its background checks are “industry leading.” During its defense, Uber’s attorneys claimed that the “safer ride” message was simply an advertising slogan, not designed to be taken seriously.
Uber might not take it seriously, but it clearly hopes passengers will.
To understand why Uber needs to completely drop the “safer than a taxi” message from its advertising, we need only look at the airline industry. As Time’s Jack Linshi explains: In the early days of the airline industry, new airlines would routinely claim to be safer than their rivals, or to make boasts about how safe flying was, generally. Those claims were designed to reassure nervous passengers who couldn’t believe that travelling in the sky could possibly be safe.
And then in the 80s, everything changed:
The trend lasted until the late 1980s, when Pan Am launched reassuring ads amidst terrorist threats targeting American airliners flying across the Atlantic. Those threats, however, eventually took form as that year’s fatal bombing of Pan Am Flight 1o3, which claimed 270 lives in the air and on the ground.
Similarly, Uber has used the safety message as a way to reassure passengers nervous about ridesharing. Even in the face of passenger assaults by drivers, including rapes and other serious assaults, Uber has stood firm by its message that getting into an Uber is safer than taking a cab. Not as safe but actually safer.
This weekend’s attacks show the short-sightedness of that message. Nothing -- not background checks, not company culture, not anything -- can guard against someone like Dalton. To claim otherwise is, at best, disingenuous, at worst criminally negligent.