A 12-Year-Old Died After Taking An Uber Alone. Drivers Say They Can’t Afford To Reject Kids.
"They will say, 'Well, no, we don't want you to do that,' but in fact, the way that they handle all their bonuses and rewards, that’s exactly what they’re doing," one driver said.
An Uber driver arrives at an address to pick up a passenger, only to find out the person requesting the ride is a child alone.
It happens all the time across the US even though it is against the ride-hailing company's terms of service.
Uber requires all account holders to be at least 18 years old and explicitly prohibits children from riding without an adult. But as news that a 12-year-old died by suicide after taking an Uber by herself showed, the policy hasn't deterred parents and kids from using the service or prevented drivers from transporting them anyway.
"It's painful to pass on rides," said Jeff Byrnes, a former Uber driver based in Southern California. "You get a strong surge and you pull up and it's a minor. Most drivers are not going to turn that down, largely because they can’t afford to."
Current and former drivers told BuzzFeed News that Uber, instead of encouraging drivers to reject ride requests for children, incentivizes them to accept all rides regardless of whether they're against the app's policies. Those incentives come in the form of bonus pay and surge pricing, along with penalties for drivers who cancel or accept fewer rides.
"They punish you if you reject rides with minors, if you reject rides with infants without car seats, if you reject rides with too many passengers," said Dave F., who drives part time for Uber in the Chicago area. "They will say, 'Well, no, we don't want you to do that,' but in fact, the way that they handle all their bonuses and rewards, that’s exactly what they’re doing."
Occasionally, Uber offers drivers a consecutive-ride bonus, which rewards them with extra pay if they accept three rides in a row, but if drivers cancel for reasons including an unaccompanied minor, they miss out on the additional money, said Dave, who asked that his last name not be published for fear of retaliation from his employers.
Canceling a ride can also negatively impact drivers' cancellation rates, which they need to keep to a minimum in order to continue receiving rewards. As their wages have decreased, drivers have become more reliant on these rewards programs.
"These guys are getting so desperate to make ends meet that they’ll literally pick up anybody," said Jonathan Cousar, forum manager for Ridester, an online resource for ride-hail drivers.
Uber did not answer BuzzFeed News' questions about what it is doing to prevent people under 18 from creating accounts, or parents from hailing rides for their kids, but drivers say that it's been a problem for years and despite their complaints, the company hasn't made a real effort to fix it.
Instead, the onus is on drivers to enforce the policy, putting them in what for some has been an awkward position.
"I'm not a bartender, I'm a driver, so asking for ID seems a little weird," said Cousar, who drives part time for Uber in New York City. "That really puts us in a precarious position."
Cousar added that sometimes drivers don't even see riders' faces, and if they start a ride before realizing their passenger is underage, they are at risk of getting a bad customer rating.
"If we do the right thing, we'll surely get a one-star rating, and that always weighs on our minds," he said.
Enforcing the policy can also be overly burdensome for drivers, and following it costs them time and money.
Before Uber added "unaccompanied minor" as a reason for canceling a ride in the app, drivers had to call the company's support team to report the user. Now, some drivers said, even when they cancel the ride, they don't always receive a cancellation fee, which is typically $3.75.
"I know that the few times that I’ve used that, I have always had to call and spend a whole bunch of time to get them to pay me the cancellation fee," Dave said. "It's hardly worth the effort."
Some drivers may not even know it's against company policy to pick up children without an accompanying adult. Several Uber drivers who spoke to BuzzFeed News admitted they didn't know it was against the terms of service when they started driving, saying they must have skimmed over it when signing up for the service.
"A lot of drivers just don't really read it," said Dylan Himmerich, who runs the Rideshare Hub YouTube channel.
Byrnes said drivers have also been given confusing information about the policy. In one such instance, Uber sent a thank-you email in November to drivers that listed reasons people use the service, including "the parent who is too busy to be there after soccer practice ... "
Soon after, the company said in a statement that the email was "not in line with our policy," and said it regretted any confusion.
The Uber app is rated appropriate for children in both Apple's and Google's app stores, allowing kids to download the service even if their parents have set an age restriction. A spokesperson from Uber told BuzzFeed News the ratings indicate only that "the content is safe" and have "nothing to do with Uber's age policy, which is 18-plus."
"They don't want to inhibit children from using the platform, very clearly," said Byrnes, who has repeatedly urged the company to adopt some kind of age-verification process when riders create accounts. "It's not that they can’t. They simply won't ... because they know they’ll take a significant drop in ridership."
Benita Diamond, the 12-year-old Florida girl who died by suicide in January after taking an Uber to downtown Orlando, was able to create an account using just a name, an email address, and a gift card she received for Christmas, according to her family.
Now the girl's family is demanding that Uber do more to enforce its policy and prevent children from taking rides without an adult.
"This will happen to another child or teenager if I don't do anything right now," the girl's mother, Lisha Chen, said during a June 6 press conference. "If they don't enforce it, then it's useless."
Uber says that account holders who violate its minors policy "risk losing access" to the app, but it's unclear how often that actually happens.
"I don't have any stats or numbers to share but can confirm our support team looks into reports and takes the appropriate actions to help address [violations], which includes removing someone's access to Uber," a company spokesperson said.
One morning a few months ago, Dave decided to see for himself whether Uber acted on drivers' reports of unaccompanied minors.
After declining to give a 14- or 15-year-old a ride to school, he reported the account for being an unaccompanied minor, then drove around the corner and waited.
"I was just curious to see what would happen," he said. "I waited about four or five minutes and another Uber showed up … and that driver took them."
Update: This article has been updated with Dylan Himmerich’s given name. A previous version of this story used his stage name.