By Katie Womack
Passengers under age 5 may constitute a tiny share of customers for Uber and Lyft, but those fragile riders deserve more attention as the industry grows.
That’s because parents and rideshare drivers are both confused about when, where and how to safely transport young children in rideshare vehicles. And that confusion is apparent in multiple ways, illustrated vividly by our research, which included a nationwide survey, a 50-state review of laws, and focus groups with rideshare drivers in Dallas, Houston and College Station. Here are a few highlights from our study:
- Child safety seat laws vary widely by state, and very little in the requirements relates directly to safety seat use in rideshare vehicles. Some states have exemptions for taxis, but those exemptions don’t typically apply for rideshare vehicles. We created a website that lists all the state regulations along with other relevant information at kidsridesafe.org.
- Only half of the parents in our survey who had taken their children in rideshare vehicles said they were very confident they had followed state laws when doing so.
- While most parents say they used a safety seat every time they took a child on a rideshare trip, 34% said they did so only sometimes, and 7% said they never used a safety seat.
- Parents sometimes view rideshare trips differently from personal vehicle trips and consequently make exceptions to their own safety seat practices, which frequently results in a failure to use the seats.
- Slightly over half (53%) of our survey respondents said that parents are responsible for the proper use of safety seats, while 30% believe that responsibility falls to either the driver or the rideshare company.
- The terms of service for Uber (with about 70% of U.S. market share, as measured in passenger spending) suggest that drivers are not responsible or liable for child safety. However, 15 states hold drivers of for-hire vehicles liable for the proper restraint of child passengers.
- There is wide consensus among rideshare drivers in our research that the training they receive — particularly on matters of child safety — is minimal, and company policies are unclear.
That’s a lot of confusion, and it’s just a sample. There’s much more outlined in our full research report. The implications for child safety are huge, and they’re increasing with the rapid growth in rideshare service, expected to jump from about 66 million U.S. users this year to nearly 100 million in 2023, according to Statista.
We don’t know the extent to which child passengers may account for future rideshare growth. If we can expect that child rider numbers will increase along with overall rideshare use, we’re talking about a problem whose potential severity is growing as well. It’s simple math: As the number of young rideshare passengers grows, so grows the likelihood of crashes involving them. When that happens, their survival chances will improve dramatically if they’re restrained.
Child restraints are very effective in preventing injury and death in vehicle crashes when they’re installed and used properly. Our research demonstrates that we need more and better understanding among both parents and rideshare drivers and companies regarding proper safety seat use. The research also demonstrates a need for greater clarity related to rideshare-specific legislation at the state level.
Tragedies have a way of compelling important conversations. People weren’t widely talking about the safety concerns related to self-driving cars until one of them struck and killed a woman crossing the street in Arizona in 2018.
We can and must do more to ensure that kids in rideshare vehicles are as safe as they would be in their parents’ cars. And we should do it before we’re pushed into the discussion by the first rideshare child fatality.
Katie Womack is a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
This article was originally published in The Dallas Morning News, February 23, 2020.