Broken bodies, broken lives

Lax rideshare regulations put drivers, passengers, and pedestrians at risk

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A hydrant hit by a private taxi operating in partnership with Uber was sent flying, leaving this geyser pouring over Divisadero
PHOTO BY @lastraw/TWITTER

Motorists driving for rideshare companies have struck and also killed pedestrians in San Francisco, even since state regulations were adopted to make these new transportation businesses safer and more accountable to the public.

Four months after the new rules were created, lawsuits from these incidents reveal that the new regulations contain gaping holes that continue to place passengers, pedestrians, and even drivers at risk.

One recent local story actually started in 2004 in Florida's Monroe County. A vehicle sped down the Overseas highway at over 100mph. Ever seen the movie The Fast and the Furious? It was like that.

In the Florida heat, the car blazed by palm trees and an ocean view, hell bent for Miami. It accelerated as it took a curve, swerving around two vehicles going half its speed. Brazenly passing a traffic control device, the car cut off one more vehicle, then another, and another. Still barreling over 100mph, the driver swerved across the double yellow lines, forcing an oncoming vehicle to veer off the highway.

A traffic snarl put an end to the thrill ride. According to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office incident report, which the Guardian obtained through a records request, driver Syed Muzzafar was accompanied by his wife and three children during his death-defying drive. He told the police officer, "This was just a dumb thing to do. I know I'm wrong."

Muzzafar was booked for reckless driving. Nine years later, he would be booked again in San Francisco for hitting a family as they crossed the street in the Tenderloin.

On New Year's Eve 2013, picking up fares for the tech company Uber, Muzzafar's car struck young Sofia Liu, her mother, Huan Kuang, and brother, Anthony Liu. Six-year-old Sofia did not survive. Her family filed a wrongful death suit against Uber on Jan. 27, and will be represented by attorney Christopher Dolan.

Uber is part of an emerging cast of companies commonly known as rideshares, now legally called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). The gist of how they operate is this: the company's mobile app connects a driver with a customer, much like a taxi dispatch. Only a few years old, the TNCs initially operated in a wild west, devoid of regulation. But the California Public Utilities Commission passed rules for TNCs in September with the aim of protecting pedestrians, passengers, and drivers in collisions.

Uber, formed in 2009, has drivers in over 50 cities worldwide and an estimated worth of just over $3 billion, according to leaked evaluations. But Uber may still be in need of a version 2.0.

The death of the young Sofia Liu, killed by a driver already arrested for reckless driving, shows the state still has a long way to go on the road to regulating rideshares.

 

NOT MY PROBLEM

The night Muzzafar struck the Liu family, he was ferrying customers using the Uber app — but the company disavowed responsibility for the incident.

"We thank law enforcement for the quick release of information," Uber wrote in a blog post the day after Sofia Liu died. "We can confirm that the driver in question was a partner of Uber and that we have deactivated his Uber account. The driver was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident."

But that's a half-truth: Muzzafar was picking up passengers for Uber all night, but because he'd just dropped off a customer, he allegedly ceased being an Uber driver. With no passengers in the vehicle, Uber did not consider him "on the Uber system."

If that sounds like a giant loophole, you'd be right — but it's a legal one, for now.