​Uber India enhances security measures with in-app SOS button

Uber will be implementing an in-app SOS button and a safety net feature as part of its plans to enhance safety measures.

Ride-sharing app Uber continues to cop flak over the safety of its service in India.

The Mumbai Transportation Department reportedly plans to recommend to the state government to ban Uber for not implementing new security measures, such as installing panic buttons in its cars.

However, Uber's Mumbai general manager Shailesh Sawlani has defended the company's plans in a blog post, saying that there are some "misconceptions with respect to Uber's safety initiatives".

Sawlani said Uber will be launching two built-in safety features on its app this week: An in-app panic SOS button that allows a rider to alert the local police upon pushing it, and a safety net feature, which allows users to share their trip details and real-time location with up to five friends and family members.

According to Sawlani, an inbuilt panic button is the "most pragmatic" method, as the installation of physical panic buttons could cause confusion and are more prone to wear and tear.

"Imagine you enter the vehicle of a driver who works on four platforms. His/her car will need to have four physical panic buttons. In a situation of distress, the rider would have to pick the correct operator's panic button to be able to get help on time. That's 25 percent chance of success, and a decision that has to be made and executed in a split second, if at all," he said.

"In addition to causing confusion, we found that not only are physical buttons prone to wear and tear, but also mechanical malfunctions. There is no way to ensure that they are kept in working condition across all the cars in the city."

However, Sawlani noted that Uber will be happy to fund a singular panic button in the car of an existing or interested prospective driver partner on the Uber platform.

Salwani also outlined that the company has shared all existing driver and vehicle data with the transport department and traffic police to aid the police verification process. He added that every new driver is directed to the crime branch for police verification.

Sawlani pointed out that Uber launched a nationwide third-party driver screening program with First Advantage, a company that specialises in background checks, as an extra step to verify its drivers' backgrounds.

"This is an important step in building out an industry-first background check process for every one of the many thousands of driver partners on the Uber platform in India," he said.

"Our arrangement with First Advantage brings in additional layers of screening over and above the standard transport licensing process, including: Address verification, a local criminal court search, and a national criminal database search."

A dedicated local incident response team that oversees and responds to incidents, including if and when the in-app button is pressed, has also been established, Sawlani said.

"This specialised team has completed an extensive training program by our US safety experts, and will be reachable 24/7. They will also assist local law-enforcement officers during distress situations," he said.

The introduction of the safety measures by Uber India comes after the company relaunched its services in Delhi last month.

As part of the relaunch, Uber committed to implementing new safety procedures, including implementing independent background checks on all driver partners, plus vehicle documentation reviews.

However, the company only relaunched after it applied for a licence under the Radio Taxi Scheme -- a move that will see it operate under the revised Radio Taxi Act 2006. Delhi is now the only city in which the company operates as a regular taxi service.

The company's services were suspended for nearly six weeks after one of its drivers was charged for allegedly raping a passenger.