In most states you aren’t allowed to send a text or answer your phone without the right kinds of hands-free gadgetry. In fact, just glancing at your phone is likely to earn you a ticket, which sounds about right: Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that texting while driving is the leading cause of death for teen drivers.
But what about Uber and Lyft drivers, who use their phones to communicate with the customers they’re picking up? It presents murky new legal territory that over the weekend was highlighted by the New York Times. For those who’ve never hailed a ride through an app, Uber, Lyft, and other similar ride-hailing platforms use in-car smartphones to alert drivers that someone is requesting a lift. This is typically in the form of a loud beep, which Uber drivers, for example, have 15 seconds to respond to when they’re driving around. Too many skipped calls in a row means Uber can suspend the driver. And drivers oftentimes call you up if they don’t see you waiting on the street.
In statements provided to the Times, both Uber and Lyft assert that their respective apps were designed with safety first and foremost. But two lawsuits filed against Lyft and Uber in California—one involving the tragic death of a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco at the hands of an Uber driver—contend that requiring users to respond to calls is dangerous.
The conundrum is just now attracting the attention of regulators, too, like the man who wrote California’s original talking and texting ban in 2008, former State Senator Joe Simitian. He says that using a platform that requires the immediate attention of drivers whenever they’re pinged is “an invitation to disaster.”