Women-only ride service for Boston confronts legal concerns

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/04/15/women-only-ride-service-for-boston-confronts-legal-concerns/

BOSTON – Easing safety concerns among women providing a ride-sharing service in which female drivers only pick up female passengers may seem like a good business proposition. At least, that’s what Chariot for Women hopes it will become when it begins operating in Boston in future months.

The idea has clearly touched a nerve. While the service had been expected to begin April 19, the owner told the Associated Press this week that the start had been pushed back to ensure that the online and smartphone apps it will use can handle the demand. Interest in the service has surged past expectations, as evidenced by its Facebook.com page, which already has reached almost 14,000 “likes,” after the company attracted media attention.

But some legal experts have questioned the exclusive nature of the service – especially as it offers a public accommodation for transportation needs. Laws prohibit discrimination based on sex, including in hiring and in offering services to the public.

In Massachusetts, the state’s Public Accommodation law has recently been the focus of much debate over a change that would blur the lines involving sex-segregated facilities such as restrooms and locker rooms. A proposed change, called the ‘bathroom bill,” seeks to ensure transgender people have access based on their gender identity rather than anatomy.

The Public Accommodation law applies to all sorts of facilities, including transportation vehicles offered for public use, according to the state Attorney General’s website.

The pink-themed Chariot business is the brainchild of a former Uber driver, Michael Pelletz, who sometimes felt unsafe while working up to 17-hour days hauling people around earlier this year. After one “terrifying” unsafe rider, Pelletz came up with the idea of starting a service with just female drivers and serving only women.

During that nighttime ride, thoughts of “What if I was a woman?” and “How would a woman handle that situation, especially when I was so nervous myself?” persisted, according to the company’s history posted on its website.

Indeed, according to a March Buzzfeed.com report that cited Uber data, the San Francisco-based ride-sharing pioneer received more than 6,000 sexual-assault complaints and more than 5,800 rape complaints from December 2012 through August 2015. But the company told Buzzfeed that the data didn’t accurately represent the number of actual cases.

Several sex-assault cases involving ride-sharing services have made headlines recently in Boston, including one in which a city resident sued Uber and another that led to jail time for a former driver.

Chariot, which may change its name before it becomes operational, plans to offer other features to help ease any safety concerns passengers may have, including a system it refers to as “safe words.” When a would-be passenger requests a ride, a certain word pops up on the smartphones of both the driver and the fare, according to Chariot. It functions as a code word.

“If the driver says the correct word, the ride may begin,” Chariot says. “If the driver doesn’t have the same safe word, the passenger then knows immediately not to get into that Chariot, and will then look for the correct vehicle.”

The service will also send the would-be passenger their driver’s picture, a description of the vehicle and its license plate number.

While there may be a good case for such a service, whether it could withstand a legal challenge is another matter.

“Even if well-intentioned,” the service would likely be illegal, Wendy Murphy, professor of sexual violence law at New England School of Law, said in an interview.

Massachusetts antidiscrimination law generally bars women-only hiring and services. However, Murphy said, a judge could allow an exception.

For instance, state law allows for the operation of women-only health clubs. If enough data could be collected to show that women are endangered by driving for Uber and Lyft and picking up all sorts of passengers but would be significantly safer serving only other women, it could make an argument an exception is warranted.

“The safety issue is a really big deal,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, told AP. “But you just can’t discriminate. You can’t turn people away.”

A similar operation planned for New York, SheHails, has been held up for more than a year by legal challenges, AP reported. The news service said when it begins operating later this year, it will use male as well as female drivers, and will serve both sexes, leaving the choice to drivers to offer a ride and fares to accept or decline.

While federal law bans discrimination based on sex in hiring, there are exceptions. For instance, prison operators have been allowed to exclude men from some jobs where privacy concerns are an issue.

But a “bona fide occupational qualification” exception is generally very narrow, Elizabeth Brown, a business law professor at Bentley University in Waltham, told the news service.

Ultimately, Murphy doesn’t think that a service like Chariot is the best solution. It’s more of a cultural shift against assault that’s needed – or an enforcement of laws that already exist – rather than creating an alternative, “second-class” option, she said.

“Why don’t you enforce fiercer criminal investigations, why don’t you put GPS devices and crack the identity of these guys more aggressively?” Murphy said, referring to global positioning systems.

“The worst thing in the world is to permit discrimination under the umbrella of the ideology of protectionism,” Murphy said, observing that many people are willing to sacrifice rights for safety, but “when women do it, it establishes a second-class citizenship. The price is too high, almost always.”

As for Pelletz, he’s prepared to make a case in court for a service that puts women’s safety first.

“We look forward to legal challenges. We want to show there’s inequality in safety in our industry,” he told the TechCrunch.com blog. “We hope to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to say that if there’s safety involved, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service for women.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.