Uber is adding a direct way to call 911 within its app in a major safety overhaul announced on Thursday by CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. The emergency button will be located in a new “safety center” that will be easily accessible from the app’s home screen, giving riders a quick way to contact first responders in the event that something goes wrong during their trip.
The safety center will feature information about the driving screening process, insurance protections, and community guidelines (aka the list of horrible behavior that will get you banned from Uber). Riders will also be able to designate five friends and share their location during every ride. It’s all part of Khosrowshahi’s effort to reform Uber’s rule-skirting reputation and address valid criticisms about the company’s lax approach to safety.
“We were not perfect,” Khosrowshahi said in an interview on Today. “Anytime you’re growing as fast as we were growing... but that’s not an excuse, and sometimes you get things wrong. But our intent now is to get things right.”
Of course, a new button to contact emergency dispatchers is only as useful as 911’s ability to find you. A recent USA Today report said 911’s chances of getting a quick fix on a distress call’s location can range as low as 10 percent. And according to a 2014 Federal Communications Commission study, location accuracy improvements could save over 10,000 lives annually.
Uber said it will commit $350,000 to improve communications between the nation’s thousands of 911 centers. Uber will also pilot 911 integration with local emergency authorities, starting in Denver. “If a rider uses Uber’s emergency button in one of our pilot cities, their location and trip details will be automatically sent to the 911 dispatcher,” Khosrowshahi writes in a blog post.
Uber is also upgrading its driver screening process. In the past, Uber has been criticized for failing to provide adequately screen its drivers before allowing them to accept rides on the platform. Starting today, the company says it will rerun criminal and motor vehicle checks on its drivers each year, “regardless of whether there is a legal obligation to do so,” Khosrowshahi said in a blog post.
Uber will also introduce new technology that continuously monitors new offenses by drivers using data sources that cover most new criminal offenses. If it receives a notification about a new violation by a driver, Uber says it will investigate and verify any potentially disqualifying information from public records, such as a new and pending charge for a DUI, to ensure the driver is still eligible to use Uber.
More reforms will likely be needed, given Uber’s fairly atrocious safety record. The company was sued last year by a woman who was raped by an Uber driver after it was reported that top executives, including former CEO Travis Kalanick, had obtained and mishandled the woman’s medical records in an effort to discredit her. And the city of London said it would not renew Uber’s license, citing the company’s lax approach to safety. Uber appealed the decision.
Most recently, a pedestrian was killed after being struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. The company immediately halted its autonomous vehicle testing nationwide as it awaits the conclusion of an investigation by federal authorities. In the Today interview, Khosrowshahi said he is doing “a top-to-bottom audit” of safety procedures but adds, “We’re absolutely committed to self-driving cars.”