How safe is using - or driving for - ride hailing companies on the Central Coast? In the wake of recent arrests of alleged Uber drivers for rape and burglary, police are urging riders to pay more attention to who shows up to drive them.
Local freelance journalist Dave Minsky drives for Uber to supplement his income. Reporting for KCBX, Minsky bring us this report:
That's the sound of a ride request on the Uber driver app. I jump into my car, start the engine, and head towards the destination. People in San Luis Obispo have been depending on Uber for rides for about four years. Lyft expanded to serve San Luis Obispo County in 2017.
Many students find Uber or Lyft a convenient and safe way to get around, like Cal Poly student Nick Erechtel.
"It's really convenient. It's like too convenient." Erchtel said. "That's why I have to keep deleting it, otherwise my credit card bill just gets wrapped up in Ubers."
But lately some have been feeling skittish about using the service.
In January, the San Luis Obispo Police Department arrested 39-year-old Alfonso Alarcon-Nunez in Santa Maria on suspicion of rape and burglary charges. Police say that Alarcon-Nunez, an alleged Uber driver operating in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, used his cover as a driver to rape female passengers and rob their homes.
According to San Luis Obispo police, Alarcon-Nunez’ victims included four Cal Poly students and one Cuesta College student. Police allege he searched for parties in the city to find rides and used the Venmo app to take payment directly from the riders to disguise his role as an Uber driver.
"Hearing that made me scared to ride with male Ubers. And my roommate and I even had a discussion about it and I definitely feel safer with female drivers over men drivers," said Cal Poly student Cynthia Gonzalez. "I'd probably cancel a male driver over a female driver."
Alex Flores, who works as an Uber and a Lyft driver, said he's feeling the fallout from the arrest of Alarcon-Nunez. He finds the arrest 'shocking' in a city that has a reputation for being safe.
"That's definitely a black eye for us drivers," Flores said. "But it's just all about teaching the younger population about rider safety. It's definitely increased awareness."
Since the arrest, Flores has experienced a noticeable change in ridership.
"More of the female riders are now riding in the back seat rather than the front seat," Flores said.
Cal Poly generally provides safety information and awareness to students specific to sexual violence throughout the year, according to university spokesman Matt Lazier, Lazier said in an emailed statement that includes highlighting the importance of verifying Uber and Lyft drivers before entering vehicles and only paying through official Uber and Lyft apps.
"They need to check the type of car, the make and model, the color of the vehicle that is coming to them, their name, and most importantly the license plate number," said driver Flores.
According to San Luis Obispo Police Department Captain Chris Staley, police haven’t had many problems with ride sharing drivers; police are still investigating whether Alarcon-Nunez was working as an Uber driver or simply posing as one. Uber didn't respond to KCBX's request for comment on the case.
But what about the safety of the drivers?
Laurence Shinderman is a retired computer executive living in a Nipomo Mesa retirement community. He’s been a part-time Uber driver for a couple of years now, and says he has been delighted with what started as a lark.
“To me I call it my mobile ATM machine," Shinderman said. "So, if you need a few hundred dollars for the evening, rather than going to the bank, I drive," Shinderman said. He said he finds his riders to be respectful and polite.
“1,800 drives, 2,000 rides," Shinderman said. "It's the law of large numbers, you're going to get a bad one here and there, but I've never had a really negative experience with them."
Despite the recent case, Uber driver Kyle Carter wants riders to know that most drivers are good people who are part of their respective communities.
"Most of us have a sense of morality and a sense of decency that, you know, we are really just out there to make our money, and get to know people around the community," Carter said.
Carter said it would be an added burden on drivers if there was more regulation or business license requirements.
“But at the same time, I understand if that’s where we needed to go, simply for having two daughters myself," Carter said. "I’m kind of looking at situation as, how can we make safe for the rider and the driver?"
KCBX's Greta Mart contributed to this report.