Uber has an emergency phone number for passengers and drivers to get in touch with a human employee at the ride-hail company, according to a report in Inc. Thursday. The number, which has been operational since October, is only available in 22 cities and is only intended for non-911 related emergencies. The revelation comes after Uber faced questions about a "panic button" in the wake of a deadly shooting in Kalamazoo, Michigan by an Uber driver last month.
Uber has panic buttons in some countries, like India, but insists that 911 should remain the preeminent emergency contact in the US. After Kalamazoo, the company took the unusual step of holding a conference call with reporters to explain this decision. "In the United States, 911 is the panic button and it's the panic button that we want people to use," Joe Sullivan, Uber's head of security, told reporters. "It's the panic button that law enforcement wants people to use. And we don't want to try and replace that."
Uber isn't calling the hotline a panic button, preferring the more corporate sounding "Critical Safety Response Line." Indeed a hotline would suggest a widely used point of communication, not a secret phone number available in a limited number of cities for an undefined purpose.
The number (800-353-8237 or 800-353-UBER) was first reported in Quartz, which found it buried several links deep in the app. And when Inc. followed up, an Uber representative said there was no emergency contact, only to walk that statement back the following day. The hotline had been kept under wraps to test for its "discoverability" by customers, Uber told Inc. It's unclear why Uber would create an emergency hotline and then not tell anyone — though Uber claims that users who stumbled across the number would call for customer assistance.
A spokeswoman told The Verge that calls to the number are routed to two call centers, one in Phoenix and the other in Chicago. It is intended for drivers and customers who have urgent, timely situations, not for emergencies, she said. An example she cited was a passenger looking for medication left behind in an Uber car. In that respect, the 800 number is more of a customer service number for semi-urgent matters. The company has yet to decide whether to test out the 800 number in more cities.
The news of the 800 number surfaced soon after BuzzFeed received leaked screenshots of Uber's customer service platform that showed a search for "rape" turning up 5,827 tickets and "sexual assault" 6,160 tickets. Uber said the number of actual instances of rape and sexual assault was much lower, but the report raised questions about the company's struggles with transparency. "We are always looking for ways to improve communication with our community," the Uber spokesperson said in a statement.
It's unclear whether wider knowledge about the 800 number would have prevented the Kalamazoo shooting that left six dead, as some have suggested. One of the shooter's passengers did make a call during the rampage to report his erratic driving... to 911.