On Monday, Jason Dalton, age 45, shot and killed 6 people and wounded two others in Kalamazoo, Michigan. On the surface of things, that hardly rates as a news story in America, where people shooting other people is a daily occurrence. Most of the time, such things don’t even make the news, anymore. Just same old, same old. Nothing to see here. Move along.
What makes this story different is that Jason Dalton is a driver for Uber. It is not entirely clear at this moment whether he was on duty with Uber while he was making his murderous rounds. Uber security chief Joe Sullivan tells Automotive News that Dalton was hired on January 25 of this year. He had an average customer rating of 4.73 stars out of five after giving about 100 total rides ,according to Sullivan.
Dalton successfully completed all required background checks with no reports of any prior criminal record found. “There were no red flags, if you will, that we could anticipate something like this,” Sullivan said. Uber uses the investigation service Chckr and databases including the National Sex Offender Public website to screen candidates. It also prohibits drivers and riders from carrying firearms.
Dalton has admitted “that he took people’s lives” while taking Uber fares, according to prosecutors investigating the shooting spree. He is accused of killing six people and injuring two others on Saturday at a Kalamazoo Kia dealership, an apartment building and a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
Concerns over Uber’s background check process have intensified in the wake of the incident. Critics say the company does not do enough to ensure riders are safe. For instance, it does not collect driver fingerprints or meet with drivers in person. Just like the Uber experience itself, all hiring is done online. Uber has agreed to pay $28.5 million to settle federal litigation brought by customers who say the company misrepresents the quality of its safety practices and fees.
Critics charge the shootings could have been prevented had a “panic button” feature been included on the U.S. version of Uber’s smartphone app. The feature, which was added in India following an attack by an Uber driver there, allows riders to tap a button alerting Uber and police.
The “panic button” feature could have been used by passenger Matt Mellen, who rode with Dalton roughly an hour before the first shooting. Mellen told CBS TV affiliate WWMT that Dalton sped through medians, ran stop signs and sideswiped a car before he was able to jump out at a stop. He said he tried to alert the company after the ride but was unsuccessful.
Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner who serves on Uber’s safety advisory board, said such a feature would not work in the U.S. Uber cannot compete with the resources of the 911 system, Davis said. He thinks the feature might actually confuse riders. Precious time could be lost while the try to figure out whether to call 911 or hit the panic button first. “In the U.S., 911 is the panic button,” Davis said.
How Uber responds to this incident could have a major impact on its business model, both here and abroad. The company’s preferred modus operandi is pugnacious push back toward anyone it perceives as a threat. Margaret Richardson is a former chief of staff under U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. She now serves on Uber’s safety advisory board along with Ed Davis. She said during a conference call that all the attention on Uber following this incident incident serves only to distract from more relevant issues.
“The focus on Uber is a distraction from the availability of guns in the hands of people who perhaps shouldn’t have such easy access to them,” Richardson said. She went on to say there is nothing Uber could have done to prevent the shootings. Good call, Margaret. Let’s make this about the Second Amendment, not Uber. Let me ask you a question, Margaret. When was the last time you heard of a regular taxi driver going on a killing spree? OK, other than in that Robert De Niro movie?
This incident involves other ride sharing services such as Lyft, as well. A Kelley Blue Book study scheduled to be released soon found that only 33% of respondents considered ride-sharing “safe,” while 48% said they would be uncomfortable riding alone with a ride-sharing driver. Karl Brauer,an analyst at KBB thinks the shootings won’t have that much impact on Uber. “It raises the question [about safety] in the average person’s mind, though,” he said. Changes in ridership habits are unlikely unless more such incidents occur or the investigation of the Kalamazoo shootings exposes potential holes in Uber’s screening process, Brauer said.
Brauer did say that incidents like this make the case for autonomous driving cars stronger. He said Uber is investing in autonomous technology partly to mitigate safety risks. Getting rid of human drivers would eliminate a major cost, as well as risks related to driver behavior. “There’s more incentive” for Uber to invest in autonomous technology in the wake of the Kalamazoo incident, Brauer said.
Brauer is apparently too young to remember Michael Crichton’s apocalyptic movie WestWorld.