When Katie Gallion’s Uber driver started swerving across the road’s rumble strips only 15 minutes into her ride near Durham, North Carolina, on June 3, she decided to give him a pass. At 10 p.m., it was dark outside and raining hard, she told BuzzFeed News. She didn’t know he’d polished off four beers before starting to drive for Uber that night.
When the car crossed over a grass median, coming precariously close to the oncoming traffic lane, Gallion began considering her options. “I was getting really scared and contemplating that maybe I should nicely ask him to pull over,” the 33-year-old pharmacist said.
“I don’t know what would’ve happened ... if I didn’t get out of the car.”
But she waited, and after turning onto a two-lane country road, the driver veered off the road and into a ditch, where the ride continued. “I was a crying mess, thinking, Oh my god, what if he doesn’t let me out of the car?” Gallion said. “Then I yelled, ‘What is going on? Let me out!’”
Finally, the driver pulled into the parking lot of a closed minimart and let Gallion out of the car. “I’m a good driver,” Gallion said he told her in a halfhearted attempt to convince her to continue the ride. Then he offered to call her another Uber.
Gallion called a friend instead, and together they called Wake County police. “I really could have died,” Gallion said. “I don’t know what would’ve happened ... if I didn’t get out of the car.”
Gallion’s Uber driver was arrested for driving while impaired at 11:09 p.m. — about an hour after her ride began. According to Wake County Superior Court records, he had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 — nearly four times the .04 legal limit for commercial drivers. The driver, who had no prior arrest record, was also charged with failure to heed a light or siren.
Reached for comment, Gallion’s Uber driver told BuzzFeed News he had accepted one other fare on the night of the incident. He said his memory of Gallion’s ride is unclear. “I remember knowing that she was uncomfortable and it was raining,” he said.
“Uber has a zero tolerance policy for the use of drugs and alcohol, and upon learning of these allegations, we immediately removed the driver's access to the platform,” an Uber spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. Uber said this driver in particular had no prior safety complaints and was “highly rated.”
BuzzFeed News reported in March that screenshots of Uber’s internal customer support platform showed the company’s instructions for how representatives should handle incidents involving alcohol and drug use. “If rider does not wish to escalate with LE (law enforcement) or media, follow strike system, issue warning, and resolve without escalating.” Under resolution suggestions, the screenshot showed that for the “1st strike,” customer service representatives were instructed to issue a “final warning,” and to permanently ban drivers at strike two.
Emails provided to BuzzFeed News show that Uber first reached out to Gallion’s driver by email at 1 p.m. the following day, about 12 hours after she reported him to the company for drunk driving. Unable to reach him over the phone (he was in jail), a company representative asked the driver when he was available discuss a “concerning report” by phone. When he checked his Uber app, he saw he had already lost access to the platform.
The next day, June 5, Uber conducted a brief interview during which Gallion’s driver was asked to review the details of the allegations against him. The driver told BuzzFeed News that he confirmed to Uber that he had indeed been arrested for driving under the influence. The following day he received an email notification from Uber saying he'd been deactivated and his "partnership" with the company ended. “They handled it quickly,” the driver said.
This isn’t the first time an Uber driver has been arrested for driving under the influence. That said, Uber notes that ride-hailing can be a wise alternative to driving after drinking. According to a study the company conducted with the nonprofit group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Uber's entry into a number of markets correlated with subsequent declines in DUI arrests.
Uber says it depends on riders to rate drivers and provide feedback, which its safety team reviews. “Uber may also deactivate a driver who receives several unconfirmed complaints of drug or alcohol use,” the ride-hail giant’s deactivation policy reads. The company told BuzzFeed it has a team of former law enforcement professionals on staff to help with police investigations. When BuzzFeed News asked if it has a system for learning about drivers’ law enforcement incidents instead of just relying on riders’ alerts, Uber said in some states background checks are “periodically” updated. Uber did not respond when asked if North Carolina is included among those states.
On Wednesday, Uber announced it is piloting app features aimed at making rides safer. In several markets across the U.S., drivers will receive daily reports on their braking, acceleration, and navigation. The goal, Uber told BuzzFeed, is to lay the groundwork to eventually create a system that gives the company real-time alerts about erratic drivers.