In April, Uber announced that it would be adding a direct way for riders to call 911 within its app in an effort to boost its flagging safety reputation. Today, the company is making that new feature live and fully operational across the US.
The emergency button is located in a new “safety center” menu that is 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 also includes information about the driving screening process, insurance protections, and community guidelines (aka the list of horrible behaviors that will get you banned from Uber).
To dial 911, riders will need to swipe up on the safety center icon, and then tap “911 assistance.” They will then be asked to confirm they mean to dial 911 before the call is put through to emergency dispatchers. This is meant to minimize accidental dials, explained Sachin Kansal, Uber’s director of product management. The panic button was previously tested out by Uber in India.
As part of the rollout of the new emergency button, Uber is also announcing a 911 integration pilot in a few markets that allows a rider’s location and trip details to be automatically sent to the 911 dispatcher when used in-app. This is meant to account for the low rates of location accuracy by 911 dispatchers in the US. A recent USA Today report said 911’s chances of getting a bead on a distress call’s location can range as low as 10 percent. Location sharing is being tested in Denver, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Naples, Florida.
The safety center features are aimed at riders, not drivers, but Kansal said that a similar panic button for drivers would be added soon. After all, riders can be belligerent, too. He said the presence of panic buttons in the app would hopefully deter both riders and drivers from behaving badly.
“We realize that a lot of situations and a lot of criminal activity arises when people think they’re not being watched,” Kansal said in an interview with The Verge. “And we just want to say that we’re turning the lights on. Part of turning the lights on is providing these features to both sides and also make sure we’re making the entire community aware of the presence of these features.”
The new safety features are part of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s efforts to reverse the company’s fairly atrocious safety record. The company was sued last year by a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in India 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, and the service is still operational in the city.
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. Federal investigators released a preliminary report last week revealing the Uber vehicle’s sensors spotted the pedestrian but failed to apply its emergency brakes.
In a recent interview with The Verge, Khosrowshahi said the panic button and improved driver screening “is just the beginning.” He added, “This is like we’ve started really working on this in a heavy and determined way as a company. And this is going to be a real differentiator for us. And by the way, the benefit is it’s a good thing for everybody.”