Uber drives the brand into safe zone, launches helpline for distress calls

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Ride hailing major Uber wants riders and policy makers to know that it is serious about safety in India. That is the signal that the company sent out on Tuesday when it launched a safety helpline that is managed by a team of Uber employees that will allow riders to call directly from the app in case of an emergency.

The new feature, called “safety line” will provide riders with the option to get in touch with Uber’s safety team if they have an “urgent, non-emergency issue, during a trip such as reporting a co-passenger’s misbehavior, a dispute with a driver or a break-down, while on a trip”. The helpline will function in English and Hindi where trained representatives of the Safety Incident Response Team will be available 24 hours, all days of the week. The helpline is different from the SOS button on its app, which connects  users with law enforcement officials directly.  

A phone number to lodge complaints has been a long-standing demand among riders and is the latest in a series of safety measures that Uber has initiated. For a company that spent its early months in India battling a crisis of safety, these measures are being seen as a declaration of its intent to get serious on the dangers. 

Safety on the dashboard

Among the efforts it has made to ensure safety for both riders and drivers is call anonymisation, notifications so riders can check if they have the right car and also the “Real-Time ID Check” which asks randomly selected drivers to upload a selfie to compare against Uber's records to ensure the two match. 

“We got a lot of rider feedback. They said that apart from what is already there in the app, it would be nice if we could call you,” said Pavan Vaish, head of Central Operations (Rides), Uber India and South Asia.

The helpline is “not a customer care centre,” clarified Vaish, adding that a team of trained professionals would handle this from their office in Hyderabad. “They go through an extensive training through our global teams. We may decide later to expand the team,” Vaish added. 

The feature was initially piloted in Chandigarh in March, where several people tested it out. Vaish said Uber does not have any immediate plans of putting a bot behind the helpline number, instead of a human, as is increasingly common with interactive helplines these days.

A sensitised ride

Both Uber and its Indian competitor Ola have been involved in cases where drivers registered on their platforms have either misbehaved with riders, or have been involved in criminal incidents. This has dampened customer enthusiasm. 

Also, as incentives for drivers dried up and rides became more expensive, customers have stayed away. All of this has led to the ride-hailing apps taking a close look at the face the brand presents to its riders.

One outcome has been Uber’s tie up with Manas Foundation, a non-government organisation (NGO), to sensitise drivers about gender and appropriate behaviour. The Delhi-based NGO has been working in mental health and gender equality and justice for 15 years. It has developed a module to engage men in making public transport safe for women.

“The Manas partnership has been good for us. Drivers have been positive because they see it as a true investment in them. When a driver gets certified they get a certificate they can hang behind the driver seat. Riders have taken pictures and put it on social media or sent it to us,” Vaish said.

The programme trained more than 6,000 drivers in 2018. This year, the company aims to train at least double the number, according to sources.


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