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Safety, Physical, & Mental Health Risks of Being an Uber & Lyft Driver

Posted by: Sergio Avedian Oct 25, 2019
Updated Jan 16, 2020

2 comments

All across the country, millions of people use ride-hail services, like Lyft or Uber, to go out to dinner, get to events such as baseball games and concerts, run errands, commute to work, for airport trips etc. With a tap of a button on their smartphones, passengers request a car and a driver arrives quickly, picks them and drops them off safely at their destination. More than 1 out of 3 people in the US have used ride-hail services, which are most prominent in major cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Uber’s 17% of total revenue alone comes from California, it is a larger piece of the pie for Lyft, running at 24% of total revenue. In San Francisco alone, there are over one million ride-hail trips per week. Riders experience a straightforward benefit from the arrangement, such as convenience and a safe ride in a clean car which is priced at about half the rates of traditional cabs. So do company executives of the largest ride-hail organizations, with Lyft CEO Logan Green making $41 million in 2017 and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi making $45 million in 2018.

However, the benefit to the millions of drivers across the country (over two million in the US) is much more elusive. As Uber and Lyft take larger cuts from each fare as opposed to the original 20-25% commission, drivers must work much longer hours just to provide for their families. All Uber and Lyft drivers and the millions who participate in the gig economy are classified as independent contractors, they lack the benefits of occupational health and safety laws to protect them. The economic instability ride-hail drivers are experiencing is wreaking havoc on the health of those who interface with an app for work.

Physical Health Risks for Rideshare Drivers

Many drivers who work for Uber and Lyft are sold the idea of ride-hail driving as a side gig, most have full-time jobs and drive during their “off” time, which can leave only a few hours for sleep and exercise. In addition, these drivers typically aren’t screened for medical problems that reduce alertness, such as obstructive sleep disorders. Uber and Lyft now require rest periods after extended driving shifts (12 hours app on) but it can be very difficult to enforce. Since a majority of drivers use both platforms for additional income, a driver can literally drive for 24 hours a day, 12 on the Uber app and 12 on the Lyft app. The physical ailments of Uber and Lyft drivers have gone up as their pay has plummeted over the past few years and they spend more hours on the road to make up for those reduced earnings.

Ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft have published safety recommendations for drivers on their websites and are working with researchers at the National Sleep Foundation and elsewhere to research drowsy driving behaviors. Uber for instance, requires drivers to take a six hour break for every 12 hours of driving time. Similarly, the Lyft requires a six hour break for every 14 hours the app is in “driver” mode.

Does the driver chase that dollar or take care of their health? A lot of times, one gets pitted against another and ultimately working for an algorithm takes its toll. Drivers in many forums and group studies have shared the physical and psychological toll of working for an app. If something arises in their workplace, they have no recourse or ability to talk with a co-worker or supervisor. Researchers have found that social support is key to health, and that being isolated from other people increases the risk of dying early and developing certain diseases. Millions of people drive for Uber and Lyft for the freedom and flexibility the gig provides, but at what cost? 

Long workdays behind the wheel harm health. Studies of taxi drivers have found that prolonged sitting while driving creates musculoskeletal disorders and chronic pain. Drivers in many focus groups mentioned how the sedentary nature of the job was causing them pain throughout their whole bodies, and they also shared how this has worsened overtime. Now that the ride-hail companies have drastically decreased drivers’ income, drivers are in the car for 60 to 70 hours per week, exacerbating negative health consequences from many hours of driving.

A full time Uber or Lyft driver is sitting in their car for most of the 12-14 hours allocated on the app. Lack of exercise and poor eating habits are the most direct and obvious ways that a majority of drivers described their physical health as impacted. Drivers in many focus groups named stress, fatigue, muscle and skeletal pain as the top health issues they had experienced as a result of driving for Uber and Lyft. More than half the drivers had also experienced headaches, sleep deprivation and depression from driving as well as dehydration, kidney issues (got to learn how to hold it as a driver), diabetes, hypertension, heart problems. Most adults are able to manage the stress caused by occasional crises but when stressors become chronic and long-term like the stress of unpredictable earnings and driving long hours for low pay, the body can no longer regulate stress hormones properly to deal with the risks associated with ride-hail driving. When Lyft and Uber first started, drivers could make a decent living driving only 30 or 40 hours a week, now that the ride-hail companies have drastically cut the rates, drivers are sitting in the car for 60 or 70 hours a week and greatly increasing the risks to their health from being overly sedentary.

Safety Risks for Rideshare Drivers

No matter what you call it, providing rides to strangers carries the risk of harassment and violence, it's why our parents told us to never pick up hitchhikers. The risk to passengers of using ridesharing services has been widely debated and publicized and over the past few months both Uber and Lyft have introduced many safety measures for the millions of passengers who use the platform but the risk to over two million drivers in the US has largely been ignored. Just how great a risk drivers face is difficult to quantify. Because the ridesharing industry is so new, and laws regulating it are non existent, official figures are tough to come by, and the big companies don't share specifics about incidents that their drivers report. They in fact call their drivers trade secrets in order to keep their information out of public sight. Still, online forums for drivers display many attacks on drivers by passengers, both verbal and physical.

You might think ridesharing companies would be doing everything they can to ensure driver safety since without drivers they would not exist but it turns out what they can do is limited by the very nature of the business. The drivers operate as independent contractors instead of employees of Uber and Lyft (AB5 In CA may change that) and the companies won’t offer true safety or any other type of training. Under federal law, training is a signifier that someone is an employee and both Uber and Lyft have fought bitterly against re-classifying drivers as employees. By the very nature of how on-demand businesses operate today, drivers in many ways have to go it alone.

When it comes to threats to driver safety, Lyft says it "keeps detailed records" whenever it's contacted about a ride-related incident. Uber also says it tracks incidents involving the safety of drivers but the companies declined to share specific numbers. However, they both must release their long awaited safety report by the end of 2019. Even if ridesharing companies don't make their figures public, federal regulators do. "Taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers," the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in 2010. In a 2014 report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that of 3,200 taxi drivers who were hurt or killed on the job, 180 sustained injuries caused by a violent person, about 5.6%, now extrapolate those numbers to the rideshare industry where Uber and Lyft boast of providing up to 10 million rides a day.

However, drivers do have some control over just how much risk they take on. They can choose not to work the bar rush hours or to avoid the parts of town where they may not feel safe, many drivers do just that, even though it may cut into their pay. Unfortunately, these precautions don't guarantee that drivers won't find themselves in a sketchy situation. The GPS feature in the Uber and Lyft apps aren't always accurate; a driver who thinks he's headed toward a well lit location may find himself driving down a dark alley. Abusive passengers don't just come out at night, nor are they found only in bars. As it turns out, picking up strangers in your car is an inherently risky job. That leaves drivers to fend for themselves which in a sense also makes them the real experts on their own safety, at least those who've put in time on the road.

When app based ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft started, both of them pitched themselves as better than cabs in every way, friendlier, cleaner, and safer. They tried to provide a measure of comfort for everyone, because they made drivers' and passengers' identities known to each other. They put rating systems in place to provide further peace of mind. Over the past eight years ridesharing has exploded in popularity and those reputation based safety measures aren't keeping pace. It's one thing when you have a small group of passengers and drivers tracking each other but when millions of drivers and passengers are joining and leaving the system every minute of every day, reputation based platforms become less attractive. It's entirely possible that a five-star passenger has a bad day or too much to drink. Drivers, drawn by the lure of surge pricing, might put aside their reservations and decide to pick up that obviously intoxicated passenger at 2:30 am. With all the recent fare cuts throughout the country, no amount of surge pricing can replace driver safety. The haste to recruit and retain new drivers (96% quit in less than a year) can make their own safety feel like an afterthought.

The Wage Uncertainty of Rideshare Driving & Driver Psychology

Income is a key predictor of health. We need economic security to thrive, successfully manage stress, and prevent disease. A family’s income directly impacts their ability to meet their basic needs. Jobs that don’t offer livable wages force families to choose between paying rent, buying healthy foods, or seeking proper health care. The unpredictable nature of ride-hail driving fuels economic insecurity, which is bad for health. Lyft and Uber maintain a constantly shifting dynamic for drivers as the companies decrease driver earnings per ride, add new drivers to their platforms oversaturating the marketplace, and eliminate the promise of flexibility in when and where to drive. As a result, drivers live in a state of chronic stress, driving for low pay with unpredictable earnings and a lack of control while driving.

According to a major study done by Human Impact Partners, workers with less control over their work environment have worse health than those with more control. Their studies have found that workers who had stressful jobs and low control over their work had higher rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and exhaustion as well as physical health problems including headaches, stomach problems, sleep disorders, and high blood pressure. Giving workers more control on how they do their job could prove to be a useful workplace intervention for promoting health. One of the major components of this stress related to ride-hail driving is the constant threat of “Deactivation”. While a driver can refuse rides that don’t fit their schedule or geographic range, drivers are hesitant to reject any ride for fear of losing money, or worse, being deactivated. Deactivation is when a ride-hail company permanently kicks a driver off their platform. If a driver declines too many rides, drivers face unspoken time-outs on the app, I call it throttling where Uber and Lyft will not send requests to them although they may be in a very busy area. This often happens without much warning and without much recourse on the driver’s part and rivers feel compelled to accept all rides sent to them by the app, and they have to accept rides without knowledge of where the rider is going, or how far they will have to drive to pick up and drop off a ride and how much they're going to get paid for a specific ride. Uber and Lyft are the ultimate control freaks, I don't but their rhetoric of freedom or flexibility for a single minute.

For drivers dependent on the income, getting deactivated poses a very real risk to their ability to pay their bills and created significant stress. Importantly, drivers don’t have access to unemployment if they are deactivated from one of the ride-hail companies. Drivers periodically receive TOS (Terms of Service) updates through their app. They have to agree to the new TOS before gaining access to the Uber or Lyft driver app. If they do not agree, drivers can no longer access the app, drive, and earn an income. A majority of drivers I have spoken to described ride-hail driving as demanding work with very low control. Drivers are in a state of chronic stress because of the physical demands of their jobs, as well as the stress of driving long hours for low pay. 

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    wraiththe
    200 Driver
     12 months ago

    This article hit the nail on the head about many things. Better pay would definitely help to allow for less hours. They could weed out bad drivers and bad passengers. Lyft now pays lower than sustenance: 33 cents a mile. There is an awful lot to be stressed out about. I would also really like to see them ensure that we know who we are picking up. That their phone numbers work, and even a picture would be nice. Many passengers think the drivers know what they look like and how to find them and they often make mistakes. The new Uber Pro actually helps a lot and has reduced some of the stress by providing info if we earn it.

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      Uberserge
      1286 Rider Driver
       10 months ago

      Thank you for reading, I appreciate your input!