The alleged rape of an Uber passenger by her driver in New Delhi on Friday and his arrest over the weekend is another sad chapter in India’s ongoing battle with violence against women. While official statistics suggest the country witnessed 25,000 rapes in 2012, survey evidence suggests numbers perhaps 10 times as high.
The government’s response to the incident was to immediately ban Uber operations in Delhi. Alhough this might offer a welcome sign of political commitment to tackle violence, it doesn’t make sense. The police in India have been accused of multiple rapes, and tourists have been raped on a train and in a traditional Delhi taxi this year; the government has not shut down the police force, the railways, and traditional taxi services. It has singled out Uber, perhaps more because it is a high-profile, politically weak service than because of any risks riders may face.
In fact, there are good reasons to think Uber can provide a safer experience than India’s traditional transportation options do. Unlike the vast majority of rape cases in the country, the alleged perpetrator in the Uber case was arrested within hours of the incident. That’s not a surprise: Uber’s procedures guaranteed that there was considerable information available on the suspect. The company provided police with the name, age, and photo of the driver, along with his bank verified address, car details, and trip and route data. That’s a much higher level of knowledge than passengers have when they hail a cab off the street.
That knowledge base and Uber’s willingness to cooperate swiftly with authorities are probably a more reliable deterrent to crime than the system of enhanced background checks now being considered by the New Delhi authorities. Transportation regulation in the country is notoriously weak. In one study, researchers who independently rated drivers’ ability to follow the rules of the road after they had taken the official driving test in New Delhi found that those who had passed drove no better than those who had failed. Drivers who were given an incentive to hire agents to “facilitate” their test passed far more frequently than those given free driving lessons before the driving exam.
That study suggests that the official driving test measures the ability to pay off drive test examiners rather than the ability to drive a car safely. If the authorities can’t ensure the public that licenses are conferred only on competent drivers, is there any reason to think their background checks will be more successful?