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How to stay safe when riding Uber or Lyft

By Donald Bradley Kansas City Star

You settle into the backseat of the Uber car and close your eyes because happy hour turned into four.

Then you remember the basic safety rules of ride-sharing – the rules you should have thought of two minutes earlier.

So you check your phone for the picture Uber sent you of the driver. Friendly looking woman, sort of resembles your aunt.

Then you look into the rear-view mirror and you see a guy who looks like Jack Nicholson in the final scenes of “The Shining.”

Phony driver incidents have sprung up all over the country. Often it’s just a money thing. Sometimes it’s more.

Last month, an Overland Park, Kansas, man was accused of posing as an Uber driver, picking up intoxicated women in Westport and the Power & Light District and raping them. Last year, police say, a man and woman at Power & Light hopped into what they thought was an Uber car. When the man had to step out to relieve himself, the driver, another fake, sped off and raped the woman in Overland Park. In May, a Rhode Island man, posing as an Uber driver, was charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl.

And sometimes such crimes are committed by real ride-share drivers.

On Tuesday, Uber weathered more bad news with the revelation of a year-old hacking attack that stole personal information about 57 million customers and drivers. There’s no evidence that the data was misused, but the news can’t help the company’s reputation.

But even with such incidents, ride-sharing continues to become an even bigger part of American life. And the big services, Uber and Lyft, are expected to do even bigger business as cold weather and the holidays arrive. Ride-sharing is convenient, reduces traffic, creates jobs and cuts down on the bar crowd getting behind the wheel.

“Uber will save your life,” said Chelsea O’Connor, 21, who works at HopCat, a Westport brew pub. “Not just your life, but others’ lives too.”

She’s a regular ride-share passenger, at least once a week. And she follows the rules.

“Knock on the passenger side window,” she said. “Make them show you their ID before you get in. You have to make sure who they are.”

For those who aren’t sure how ride-sharing works, passengers travel in private vehicles driven by their owners, for a fee prearranged through a phone app. Despite the negative stories, riders, police and others say the good outweighs the bad.

“Police encourage ride-sharing – just do it responsibly,” said Kansas City police spokeswoman Sgt. Kari Thompson. “Yes, the party districts have had incidents. Obviously, if someone has ill intent that’s where they go.”

“Riders must make a driver prove who they are,” Thompson added. “That’s not a problem for sober people. They can quickly determine if someone is who they say they are.

“But alcohol hinders that judgment, and that’s when people get in trouble.”

Kayla Whaling, an Uber spokeswoman, said the company recently began a safety awareness campaign to emphasize a rider’s need to check the car’s license plate and the driver’s photo and name.

“We want to make sure people know how to ride safely,” Whaling said. “We want to remind them to confirm who their driver is prior to getting into the vehicle.

“No trip is anonymous.”

But Uber has come under fire for hiring convicted felons who go on to commit crimes. In June, a Kansas City woman sued the company, saying a driver with a criminal record raped her.

And on Monday, Colorado regulators fined Uber’s parent company $8.9 million for allowing employees with serious criminal offenses to work for the company as drivers.

Still, Marguerite Rappold, 28, a Kansas City curator and artist, has heard the bad stories but thinks those could mostly be avoided if people are careful.

“I’ve never had a bad experience because I do what I’m supposed to do,” Rappold said.

She likes to talk it up with drivers. Most are middle-aged, friendly folk looking to supplement their income.

“They like to talk about their children,” she said.

Then there’s Michael Mandacina, 22. He said he’s a recording artist who also does concrete work. He walked up Westport Road on a recent evening at sunset. Sunglasses, cigarette on his lip and a skateboard in his hand.

He shrugged at any danger of ride-sharing. “Just follow the rules,” he said. “Mainly, make sure it’s the right car.”

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