Workplace

Lyft asked if this driver needed help. He was already dying.

Lyft says its safety features are there to protect drivers. But the story of one man’s murder reveals how those features fall short in real life-and-death scenarios.

Ride-hail driver

Lyft says it’s worked hard to develop security features to keep drivers safe.

Image: Paul Hanaoka

Lyft’s driver safety features failed Kristian Philpotts even before the night he was murdered.

In early December, while Philpotts was driving to make money to pay for his lifelong dream of going to veterinary school, someone stopped his car and tried to carjack him. Philpotts ran for safety, and soon, a text came through from Lyft: “It looks like you’ve been stopped for a while. Do you need help?”

Philpotts answered, “Yes,” but all he got was an auto-reply in return.

“This is Lyft. We could not forward your message.”

Philpotts had apparently missed the link he was supposed to click to register his reply. That night, at least, Philpotts got away unscathed anyway. One month later, he wouldn’t be so lucky.

On Jan. 12, Philpotts, 29, was fatally shot in Champaign, Illinois, by three teenage passengers who are now being charged with his murder. Once again, Philpotts received a text from Lyft asking if he needed help, but this time, he couldn’t answer — and Lyft didn’t seem to notice.

His mother, Marla Rice, wants to know why. “Why didn’t Lyft do something? Why didn’t they try to call him?” asked Rice, who discovered the messages in his phone and provided a screenshot to Protocol. “There was nothing behind that text.”

Lyft says it’s worked hard to develop security features to keep drivers safe. In addition to the texts the company sends, Lyft also has 24/7 safety teams and partners with ADT, so drivers can use the Lyft app to contact the security company and get emergency services sent to their location. But Philpotts’ story is a case study not only in how those safety features fail in real life-and-death situations, but also in how Lyft itself fails the families of drivers who are hurt or killed on the job.

These issues aren’t unique to Lyft. Earlier this month, the worker advocacy group Gig Workers Rising published a report that found more than 50 gig workers have been killed on the job since 2017, not including those who died in traffic accidents. The majority of those killed were Uber and Lyft drivers.

Now, Rice is calling on Lyft to fortify its safety features and do more to look after victims and their families. “I want Lyft to get themselves together,” Rice said. “There are so many things that went wrong.”

In a statement to Protocol, Lyft spokesperson Gabi Condarco-Quesada said, “This incident is heartbreaking, and families should never have to experience such a traumatic event. We care deeply about the safety of our drivers and are always looking for more ways to protect them from crime.”

Rice said she never heard from Lyft right after her son was killed. But she did see a local news article in which a Lyft spokesperson said the company “had attempted to reach [Philpotts’] loved ones” to offer support. Condarco-Quesada told Protocol Lyft did attempt to reach Philpotts’ family “on several occasions,” but Rice said she wasn’t actually able to speak with anyone at Lyft until the police department put her in touch with the company.

Kristian "KP" Philpotts Kristian "KP" Philpotts was driving for Lyft to pay for veterinary school. He's pictured here graduating from Illinois State University. Photo: Courtesy of Marla Rice

She’s spent the three months since then exchanging emails and phone calls with a Lyft customer support agent, attempting to get some sort of compensation from the company and clarity on her unanswered questions — like, for instance, why Philpotts’ last ride is marked in his app with a note that reads “admin canceled” and reflects a payment of $0. “They did not pay him for the ride that took his life,” Rice said. Condarco-Quesada did not answer Protocol’s question about this issue.

Lyft did agree to pay for Philpotts’ funeral, but only after Rice sent receipts delineating each expense. Rice said she found that alone to be “inappropriate,” but that wasn’t the only issue. According to a screenshot reviewed by Protocol, when Lyft sent Rice a link where she could accept the payment for the funeral expenses, it described the money as a “settlement and release payment,” terms Rice said she had never discussed with Lyft.

Condarco-Quesada said that language was used “in error,” and subsequent emails and screenshots reviewed by Protocol do show that the company changed the description after Rice objected. But Rice can’t help but wonder whether Lyft just hoped she wouldn’t notice.

Condarco-Quesada pointed to several of Lyft’s safety features as evidence of the company’s efforts to protect drivers. Lyft proactively checks in with drivers, for instance, via text, in-app notifications and push notifications if, say, they’re stopped for a long time or go off route. If the driver doesn’t view the message within 30 minutes, Lyft follows up. But the company doesn’t escalate the issue with authorities when drivers are unresponsive because, Condarco-Quesada said, check-ins are “triggered in a number of situations, and not all of them are necessarily safety-related.”

The ADT partnership is different. If drivers request a call from ADT and then don’t answer, the security firm notifies the authorities. But that depends on the driver initiating contact with ADT through the app. It’s not hard to see how those features could fall short in the real world, as they did for Philpotts.

The company is also working on ways to spot risky riders. “We constantly evaluate trends in rider behavior, and have implemented processes to identify and take action against new and existing accounts that we believe to exhibit fraudulent or unsafe or high-risk behavior,” Condarco-Quesada said.

But Rice believes Lyft owes drivers a lot more. She argues the company should provide drivers with insurance that covers more than just accidents, panic buttons that don’t require fiddling with an app and passenger screening processes that are at least as forceful as what drivers themselves have to go through. “Have background checks run on them, the same way they do on drivers,” Rice said, noting that the teens who killed Philpotts were technically too young to even use the app under Lyft’s policies.

And she said the company owes the families of victims more than strictly what it costs to bury their children, parents and spouses. Rice is currently raising money through GoFundMe to start a scholarship program that will send students to vet school, which Philpotts had hoped to attend himself. The fundraiser describes Philpotts, who had received his master’s degree in pre-veterinary studies in 2019, as “the most profoundly generous person” who would “be happy to see that we helped someone else live out his dream.”

Rice sent a link to the fundraiser to her contact at Lyft, along with a news report about Instacart contributing to a GoFundMe for one of its shoppers who was killed. She’s been waiting to hear back. Condarco-Quesada told Protocol Lyft plans to make a contribution.

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