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Op-ed: Our Uber nightmare

Elana Greenberg and Zoe Engels | Class of 2020 and 2021

It was 11:26 p.m. on Sept. 6. We were still in our Uber, at the red light of S Vandeventer Avenue and Forest Park Parkway. If we didn’t escape then, a future escape was not guaranteed. We had just left the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Our Uber had arrived at 11:22 p.m. We confirmed our location: Simon Hall. The driver had his phone mounted to the dashboard. We felt safe. So, when he began driving in the wrong direction, we gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Turn right, the Uber app said. He kept going straight, turned the music up and said nothing. Recalculating. Turn right, it said. He kept going straight and turned the music up. Recalculating. The pattern seemed endless. Turn right. He turned left. He closed out of the Uber app, opened Facebook and sent a text. He opened the Lyft app. He did everything but look at the Uber app.

We were too terrified to make a sound. We pressed the in-app safety button. The police would be notified of our location, if we swiped to call them. “911, what’s your emergency?” is not what we wanted the driver to hear. That’s when we reached the aforementioned red light. “You know, we forgot that we need to get a few things at the Ikea right here,” we blurted out.

He didn’t want us to get out of the car, he said. He’d just keep driving us forward. The Uber app was closed. No, we would not let him keep driving. We hoped that he’d think the Ikea was open and leave us alone. We opened the door. We began to run.

The light turned green. He made a right turn as if he was going to follow us into the Ikea parking lot. He was never planning on making that turn. We kept running and called the Washington University Police Department. We were out of their jurisdiction. They forwarded our call to 911. We hid behind the metal rims of Ikea’s elevator doors on the second-floor vestibule. We didn’t know if the driver had followed us into the parking lot. We didn’t know if we were still in danger.

We told the dispatcher everything. It wasn’t enough. “So, I’m assuming that the driver is black, and you two girls are white?” she asked. We are white, the driver is white. We didn’t think it would matter. Maybe for identification purposes. Maybe. But her tone was accusatory.

After nine minutes, the dispatcher said that she had all the information she needed. She claimed officers had been dispatched and hung up. We felt that something was wrong.

Our families also called the St. Louis Police Department (STLPD). A different dispatcher called us at 11:46 p.m. She had no record of our previous call—cops were never dispatched.

We heard footsteps below and desperately whispered, “Please send help.” This time, the dispatcher stayed on the line. The cops arrived at 11:55 p.m. We left our hiding spot and ran outside, finally safe.

As the cops drove us back to Washington University, they told us that they didn’t have record of our first call, as we expected. However, they also added, “We’re in the homicide capital of America. You guys were not a priority.” We understood, yet we couldn’t help but think about all of the what-ifs.

Our goal isn’t to make you feel bad for us, and we recognize that most Uber rides and drivers are safe. However, this one wasn’t. These things can happen anywhere, and as members of the Wash. U. community, you deserve to know what happened in your own backyard.

Uber needs to change its policies. Drivers should be required to mount their phones to their dashboards and keep the Uber app open. Uber should also allow riders to text 911 in emergency situations.

After the incident, Chancellor Mark Wrighton wrote each of us an apology letter, acknowledging that neither WUPD nor STLPD handled the situation properly. We appreciate and accept his apology, but we still have questions.

As of Oct. 4, there is no record of our conversation with the first dispatcher. STLPD has record of the second, successful call, but does not have record of the poorly-conducted, first conversation. Strange, isn’t it?

We accept that we’ll always have unanswered questions, yet changes need to be made, and that’s not just the responsibility of Wash. U. It’s also the responsibility of STLPD and Uber. No one should ever feel afraid and threatened to the extent that they have to run away from their Uber and hide in an empty Ikea, wondering if help will arrive.