Lyft to require passengers and drivers to wear masks

By Moira Warburton and Tina Bellon

TORONTO/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Lyft will require both passengers and drivers to wear masks and complete a health certification program, including confirming before each ride that they are not displaying symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus, the company said on Thursday.

The move comes as ridesharing companies struggle to maintain revenues with millions of people worldwide under social distancing orders from public health authorities.

Lyft has previously committed to distributing masks to its more than one million drivers, focusing on cities where masks are required by law, said Angie Westbrock, head of global operations, although she declined to say how many masks had been or would be distributed.

“A really important component of this policy is that it’s not just for drivers,” Westbrock said. “This policy requires passengers to also certify that they’re going to comply with this health safety policy and that they’ll also wear a mask.”

Passengers are also asked to leave the windows open when possible, and not sit in the front seat of cars.

Masks and cleaning supplies for drivers will be distributed through Lyft’s hubs, some of which will reopen for this purpose, Westbrock said.

Uber Technology Inc, Lyft’s main competitor, has said they will implement technology that will require drivers to submit a photo of their face to confirm that they are wearing the mandatory mask.

Unlike Uber, Lyft only operates in the United States and parts of Canada.

Didi, a Chinese ridesharing company, is paying to install plastic barriers in cars to protect riders and drivers.

Westbrock said that Lyft is “always looking at new technology and thinking about ways to improve health and safety,” and that Thursday’s announcement represents “the first step and a really important foundation to build on… as the situation evolves.”

Nicole Moore, a part-time Lyft driver and volunteer with Drivers United, an advocacy group representing ride-hail drivers in the United States, said many drivers have not been able to access the promised masks, and have had to buy their own.

The requirements also put the onus on drivers to enforce the new rules, she said.

Lyft is “not doing what they need to do to protect their brand and the people who work for them that generate the cash that they use,” Moore said.

A corporate policy such as installing plastic barriers “would be a huge help,” she added.

Lyft said in its earnings call on Wednesday that U.S. ridership had improved more than 20% from coronavirus-hit rock bottom last month and that it believes Americans will turn to ride-hailing as the first opportunity to make up for lost income as the U.S. economy reopens, helping the company cut down on driver incentives and other costs.

(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Toronto and Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

As coronavirus empties streets, speeders hit the gas

By Tina Bellon

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Empty roads in the United States and Europe are tempting drivers to go out and shift into high gear.

From Los Angeles to New York, London and Berlin, coronavirus lockdowns have drained traffic from normally crowded roads. That has opened space for drivers who want to defy police warnings and automated traffic enforcement systems to go racing in the streets. In London and Los Angeles, police said they have clocked drivers zooming down streets at over 100 miles an hour(160 km/h).

Drivers are posting videos on social media to boast of races on empty roads in Mexico and the U.S. states of Arizona and Texas. In addition to the thrill of speeding, some drivers overestimate their abilities and falsely believe that empty roads provide safety, according to police officials.

Vehicle miles traveled, a standard industry metric to measure vehicle volume and trip distances, has dropped in every U.S. county as of early April, according to data by StreetLight Data, a transportation analytics firm.

For a graphic, click here: https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/AUTOS-TRAFFIC/qmypmyxjpra/TRAFFIC.jpg

At the same time, average speeds measured during the first week of April increased significantly in the five largest U.S. metropolitan areas.

According to data by transportation analytics firm INRIX, the average speed on interstate highways, state highways and expressways in those areas increased by as much as 75% compared to January and February and somewhat or at times significantly exceeded the speed limit.

INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said drivers in some U.S. cities were seizing upon what they see as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to increase speed. “It is unprecedented,” he said.

In New York City, transportation officials reported an increase of more than 60% in the amount of speed camera tickets issued in March compared with the year-ago period. Preliminary city data suggests a similar trend for the first week of April. At the same time, traffic was down more than 90% compared with January in Manhattan, the city’s central borough.

On Bruckner Boulevard in the city’s Bronx borough, a road with a 30 mph speed limit that made up a large share of speeding camera tickets, 5% of drivers traveled faster than 43 mph in the first week of April, according to INRIX data.

In Washington, D.C., where traffic has decreased some 80% in March compared with January, according to StreetLight Data, officials have recorded a 20% jump in March speeding tickets. Of those, violations issued for driving 21-25 mph over the speed limit rose by nearly 40%.

Meanwhile, California Highway Patrol officials in Los Angeles have taken to Twitter, urging road users to slow down by posting images of rollover crashes and wrecked vehicles due to speeding on a nearly daily basis.

“It’s very common now to observe drivers speeding at around 100 mph,” California Highway Patrol officer Robert Gomez said.

The Los Angeles Police Department said it is redeploying its resources, establishing a high-speed street task force to position officers at strategic roads. The city has also changed its traffic signals sequence to avoid long stretches of green lights.

“Even though significantly fewer people are driving, the people that are out there are putting vulnerable road users at higher risk,” said David Ferry, a lieutenant in the traffic coordination section of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Ferry pointed to LAPD data showing that while collisions and fatalities decreased significantly overall in March, severe collisions were declining at a lower rate.

Police officials in Europe are witnessing a similar trend.

London police on Tuesday released a video showing a driver speeding at 150 mph (240 km/h) and officials said speeds on some roads had nearly doubled over the weekend with some drivers taking advantage of empty roads.

In Germany, police officials in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said about 30% of all vehicles exceeded speed limits in March – compared with roughly 5-8% in a regular year.

Stefan Pfeiffer, a marshal with the Bavarian police in Southern Germany, said drivers were tempted by the false sense of safety conveyed by empty roads and warmer weather was luring inexperienced motorcycle riders.

“While traffic safety presumably increases as fewer people are on the road, individual drivers worsen the situation with their irresponsible and at times completely reckless behavior,” Pfeiffer said.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Uber says it received over 3,000 reports of sexual assault in U.S. in 2018

By Tina Bellon

(Reuters) – Ride-hailing firm Uber Technologies Inc said it received over 3,000 reports of sexual assault related to its 1.3 billion rides in the United States last year, in a report aimed at ensuring drivers and the public it was serious about safety.

The figure represents a 16% fall in the rate of incidents from the previous year in the five most serious categories of sexual assault reported, Uber said on Thursday in its first biennial U.S. Safety Report.

The firm also said reports of assaults on passengers overlooked risks for drivers as riders accounted for roughly half of the accused.

The 84-page report comes almost two weeks after Uber said it would appeal the loss of its license to carry passengers in London over a “pattern of failures” on safety and security.

Uber, which in the past has faced criticism over safety on its platform and has been repeatedly hit with lawsuits over driver misconduct, last year committed to releasing a safety report in a sign of a cultural turnaround under its new CEO.

The firm, which operates in 70 countries, said the report showed its commitment to transparency to improve accountability and safety industry-wide. It said it would use what it learned producing the report for its “next steps” in other places.

“I suspect many people will be surprised at how rare these incidents are; others will understandably think they’re still too common. Some people will appreciate how much we’ve done on safety; others will say we have more work to do. They will all be right,” tweeted Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi.

In the report, Uber said 99.9% of its 2.3 billion U.S. trips in 2017 and 2018 ended without safety incidents.

It said it received 235 reports of “non-consensual sexual penetration” last year and 280 of “attempted non-consensual sexual penetration” – nearly all filed by women. The remaining assault reports included incidents of unwanted kissing or touching of body parts.

It also detailed 10 fatal physical assaults in 2017 and nine in 2018 – eight victims were riders, seven were drivers using Uber’s app, and four were third parties such as bystanders.

At an event on Wednesday, Khosrowshahi said he prioritized improving Uber’s culture and safety when assuming his role in 2017. At the time, Uber was dealing with regulatory fallout and public backlash over its business practices, forcing former CEO and founder Travis Kalanick to step down.

“We had to change the culture internally and we simply got to do the right thing,” Khosrowshahi said, adding that Uber was not hiding anything by publishing internal information.

Rival Lyft Inc in a statement said it was committed to releasing its own safety report and sharing information on unsafe drivers. It did not state a release date for its report.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Uber said it puts drivers through a vigorous background check before accepting them onto its platform. In its report, it said one million drivers failed to pass the screening test in 2017 and 2018 and more than 40,000 were removed from the app after extra screening layers.

Regulators have long said Uber’s screening process was insufficient and inferior to those in place for taxi drivers, with several U.S. cities attempting to compel Uber to mandate fingerprinting of its drivers.

New York City is currently the only U.S. city where drivers have to provide fingerprints and undergo the same licensing requirements as regular taxi drivers.

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission in response to Uber’s safety report on Thursday said there was no substitute for background checks based on fingerprinting.

“They are the best way to prevent against drivers with criminal records,” its Acting Commissioner Bill Heinzen said in a statement.

An Uber spokeswoman on Thursday said the firm’s screening process was robust and rigorous, and was more reliable than the database for fingerprints where she said not all crimes are updated promptly.

Uber’s share price was down 1.57% in after-hours trade at $28.20.

(Reporting by Tina Bellon; Additional reporting by Neha Malara; Writing by Peter Henderson and Ismail Shakil; Editing by Chris Reese and Christopher Cushing)

California manhunt under way after random shootings target 10 drivers

A bullit hole in a victim's vehicle window is shown in this photo in Fresno County, California, U.S., provided December 21, 2017.

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Police in California’s Central Valley have launched a manhunt for at least one suspect after a series of 10 random shootings on vehicles left one woman wounded this holiday season, officials said on Thursday.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims has warned the shooting attacks, which have occurred in her jurisdiction and neighboring Madera County, could turn deadly.

“If this keeps going, it’s going to be a matter of time before we have a murder investigation,” Mims said at a news conference. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Witnesses described the suspect’s vehicle as a dark colored pick-up truck with oversized tires, Mims said. The motive for the shootings is unknown, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

A woman was struck by a bullet when she was driving on Dec. 1 in rural Fresno County near the town of Kerman, less than 200 miles (322 km) southeast of San Francisco.

Her injuries were not life-threatening.

In the other nine shootings, which occurred between Nov. 27 and Dec. 17, cars were struck by gunfire but no one was wounded, authorities said. Most of the shootings were in Fresno County, just outside Kerman with its population of 15,000 people.

The drivers of those cars said they heard a bang, as another vehicle passed by, according to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

Investigators are not sure if a single suspect is behind the attacks, or if others may be involved, said Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Botti.

But Mims, speaking in general terms, addressed a single suspect during her remarks at the news conference.

“To the suspect, this is a cowardly act and we are working very hard to find you,” Mims said. “We will hold you responsible.”

Authorities believe the victims were randomly chosen.

A number of communities in the United States have dealt with random shootings on roadways over the years.

In 2015, 11 vehicles were struck by gunfire and a teenager was lightly wounded, in a series of shootings in the Phoenix area. A landscaper was arrested and charged later that year in connection with the attacks, but defense attorneys called into question ballistics evidence used to charge him.

A judge in 2016 tossed out charges against the landscaper, after prosecutors asked for them to be withdrawn.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by Diane Craft)

Saudi man arrested after threatening women drivers

Female driver Azza Al Shmasani alights from her car after driving in defiance of the ban in Riyadh, June 2011. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – A Saudi man was arrested for allegedly threatening to attack women drivers, the Interior Ministry said on Friday, following a royal decree that ends a ban on women driving in the kingdom.

Many Saudis welcomed Tuesday’s announcement by King Salman lifting the ban by next year, but some expressed confusion or outrage after the reversal of a policy that has been backed for decades by prominent clerics.

The ministry said on Twitter that police in the kingdom’s Eastern Province had arrested the suspect, who was not identified, and referred him to the public prosecutor.

“I swear to God, any woman whose car breaks down – I will burn her and her car,” said a man wearing a traditional white robe who appeared in a short video distributed online earlier in the week.

Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the video.

Saudi media, including the Arabic-language Okaz newspaper, quoted the Eastern Province’s police spokesman as saying the man in custody was in his 20s and that the arrest had been ordered by its governor.

Separately, Okaz reported late on Thursday that authorities directed the interior minister to prepare an anti-harassment law within 60 days.

The directions cited “the danger posed by harassment …and its contradiction with the values of Islam”.

Saudi authorities have in the past taken a broad view of sexual harassment, including attempts by men to get to know unrelated women by asking to exchange phone numbers or commenting on their beauty.

In a country where gender segregation has been strictly enforced for decades in keeping with the austere Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, the end of the driving ban means women will have more contact with unrelated men, such as fellow drivers and traffic police.

The ban is a conservative tradition that limits women’s mobility and has been seen by rights activists as an emblem of their suppression. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that still bans women from driving.

(Writing by Reem Shamseddine and Stephen Kalin; editing by John Stonestreet)

London insists on English requirements for private hire drivers

A taxi travels along Oxford Street during a bus strike in London January 13, 2015. Members of the Unite union are staging a 24-hour bus strike over pay and conditions, local media reported.

LONDON (Reuters) – London’s transport bosses said on Monday that all drivers of private hire vehicles must speak, listen to, read and write English to a set level, intensifying a battle with taxi app Uber [UBER.UL] which says the expected standard is too high.

Earlier this year, the capital’s transport authority said it would introduce the measure as part of a series of stricter rules on apps such as Uber and private hire firms like Addison Lee whilst supporting the city’s iconic black cabs.

The move prompted San Francisco-based Uber, which allows users to book journeys on their smartphone, to take legal action arguing that the written component was too demanding.

But on Monday, regulator Transport for London (TfL) said drivers will have to take either an English proficiency test or provide proof, such as a British school qualification, that they can meet the required level.

“Drivers must be able to communicate with passengers to discuss a route, or fare, as well as reading and understanding important regulatory, safety and travel information,” TfL said in a statement.

A hearing in the case brought by Uber, whose investors include Goldman Sachs and Alphabet Inc unit GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, is due in December.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison)