“Mom, can I Uber home instead of you picking me up?”
Eight years ago, this sentence would not have made sense to any parent anywhere. These days, “Uber” is both a noun and a verb, and a way of life for people in urban and suburban areas from San Francisco to Sydney. Some parents consider cell-phone enabled ride services a godsend — an inexpensive, convenient, safe way to get their kids from point A to point B every day.
For many parents raising kids in cities or suburbs, however, a worrying and confusing issue is when and how to let your kids use Uber, Lyft or other private ride services. For some parents, letting kids Uber gives them too much freedom, or is financially unfeasible, or exposes them to unknown risks. I have three kids ages 14, 17 and 19. All three used Uber and Lyft starting when they became teenagers. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to keep kids safe while letting them take advantage of this transportation alternative.
First, many parents worry about teenagers taking Uber, especially girls, because of the risk of sexual assaults. However, Uber’s records show the fears overstate the risks, because from December 2012 to August 2015, there were five claims of rape and fewer than 170 claims of sexual assault directly related to Uber rides. In a few cases, sexual offenders posed as Uber drivers to lure victims into cars. Adding to the confusion, Uber customer service tracks misspellings of “rate” as “rape,” misinterpretations of “you raped my wallet,” and even the spelling of a driver or customer’s name (“Don Draper“) that led some analysts to believe that sexual assaults were occurring at higher rates than averages. Lastly, many of the rumors about Uber and sexual assault risks were started or spread by taxi services trying to prevent Uber from succeeding in their regions, and picked up by nervous parents without verification.
The reality is that brand-name ride services are safe overall. Ride services can actually reduce risks for teens by providing them with safe, sober, reliable transportation, and there are many steps parents and teens can take to make ride services even safer. As it relates to sexual assault, the unfortunate reality is that being a teenage girl, period, is unsafe. Girls 16-24 are three times as likely to be victims of intimate violence and sexual assault vs. older women. A college campus or a friend’s party are more dangerous places for teenage girls than a paid passenger vehicle tracked by GPS; riding in an Uber doesn’t make being a young girl any more or less safe. Parents can more effectively prevent sexual assault by learning the facts and educating our teenagers about where and when the greatest risks lie. But forbidding girls from taking Lyft or Uber only provides a false, and dangerous, sense of security to both us and our daughters.
Here are other tips to keep all kids who use ride services safe:
- Have your children use your ride service account; don’t have them set up one in their name. Most services set the account holder age minimum at 18, in the first place. But the additional reason your kids’ account should be in your name is that you want to access Uber’s GPS location service so you know where the car is at all times, and where your children have been. In addition to tracking your kids’ whereabouts in real time using the car service, you can also track your children using the location service on their cell phone, so you always know where your kids are.
- In terms of deciding how old a child must be to use a ride service, don’t let a child who you would not leave home alone travel anywhere alone. An Uber driver is not a babysitter. It is too risky to let a young child go anywhere with a stranger, even a hired stranger.
- Before you give permission to use any ride service, establish rules about when, where, with whom, and under what circumstances your kids can ride. A friend lets her 14 year-old son take Uber home from school, but she drives him to all social events. I find Uber most helpful in giving my kids a sober way to get home from a party or a dance when I can’t (or don’t want to) pick them up. Other parents’ rules include Not at Night, Not By Yourself, Not Without My Permission, Not to a House You’ve Not Been To Before, and so on.
- Have your kids call you before and after each ride, and have them text you a picture of the license plate before they get in.
- Make sure your children know to wait inside the building where the pick up occurs (not on the sidewalk), to look for the Uber or Lyft sticker in the window, and have the driver verify the name on the account before they get into the vehicle (this one is smart for adults, too).
- Forbid your kids to use a ride service to sneak out of your house or anyone’s house at night. Don’t assume your kid is too smart or too honest to try this; teenagers can be reckless without realizing how risky their behavior is, and a ride service at their disposal can quickly increase the risks.
- Make sure your kid has (and uses) a mobile charger so they are never stranded without a phone.
- Establish the ground rule that any violation or risky behavior will result in losing the privilege of having access to a ride service and/or the privilege of having a cell phone in the first place.
- Remind teenagers that in any emergency, or perceived dicey situation, you are the first line of defense; they should call you immediately whenever they need help or advice. If you are not available, they should call the police.
One of the hardest parts of parenthood is keeping your kids safe while letting them out into a world we know can harm them. Uber, Lyft and other ride services offer parents a tool we can customize to let our children venture out without us and to make our job as parents easier. But we don’t have to sever the virtual umbilical cord of safety and wisdom we still provide.