Exploring the health and safety risks facing ride-share drivers

In brief

  • Ride-share drivers face physical and mental health risks that are not only similar to, but also distinct from, those of taxi drivers.
  • Like taxi drivers, ride-share drivers face physical and mental health risks caused by sitting for long hours, not exercising, being in traffic, not having access to washroom facilities or healthy food options, working alone and/or at night, dealing with verbal abuse and being physically assaulted by passengers.
  • Ride-share drivers also face stressors unique to this form of work, including worries about negative passenger ratings, pressures to interact with the app while driving, penalties for declining rides, and financial insecurity arising from gig work.

Published: March 2020

Why was this study done?

Past studies have identified several health risks related to taxi driving. Driven by consumer demand and enabled by mobile technology, ride-share work of the type offered by services such as Uber and Lyft has rapidly expanded in recent years. Although supporters of ride-share services promote them as safer than taxi services, little research has been done on the health and safety risks faced by Uber and Lyft drivers. 

How was the study done?

Between December 2016 and August 2018, a research team (led by Dr. Ellen MacEachen at the University of Waterloo) conducted one-on-one interviews or focus groups with 75 people in a large Canadian city. These people included 17 passengers, 27 Uber drivers (Lyft had not come into being at the time of the interviews), eight taxi drivers, eight ride-share and taxi managers, and 15 representatives of government, legal, tax and insurance authorities. Of the ride-share drivers, 60 per cent earned their income solely through Uber; 40 per cent held full-time jobs and worked off hours to supplement their income. This part of the study focused on drivers’ perspectives.

What did the researchers find?

Uber and taxi drivers alike spoke of health concerns, both physical and mental. They spoke of back, leg and knee pain from sitting for long hours without breaks. They spoke of eating unhealthy food and lacking exercise. With little access to washroom facilities, many limited how much fluid they drank. The mental stresses they described included being distracted by passenger demands and backseat driving, as well as dealing with potentially dangerous situations such as passengers being verbally or physically abusive or rides taking them to unfamiliar parts of the city at night. 

Uber drivers also spoke of work conditions and stressors unique to ride-share driving. They cited negative ratings from passengers as a high source of stress, given that poor passenger ratings could result in their being removed from the ride-share platform. Despite the safety risks of using the ride-share app while driving, drivers felt compelled to do so for navigation and dispatching instructions. (Drivers reported having 20 seconds to accept a ride on the app or the ride offer would be given to another driver.) Drivers also spoke of the pressure to accept rides despite health or safety concerns, since declining rides too often could result in their being locked-out of the service for a period of time.

What are the implications of the study?

This study suggests that some ride-share drivers are disregarding their health and safety needs in order to remain in good standing in a form of work designed around ratings and metrics. It also suggests financial pressures may take precedence over health and safety concerns due to the lack of job security and income guarantees. Although regulations such as caps on driving hours or mandatory breaks may promote better health, they also risk jeopardizing workers’ already-low earnings. Interventions that do not address the underlying wage structure and organization of ride-share work are likely to have unintended negative consequences for ride-share drivers.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this study is that it is one of the first in the scientific literature to report on the health and safety of ride-share drivers in Canada. A limitation of this study is its reliance on self-reports of health risks. Also, the drivers interviewed were mostly new to this form of work; long-term health consequences may be missing from their descriptions.