One morning late last year, Uber driver James Lindsey saw he had a chance to more than double his pay.
Instead of the $8 per hour average he had been making, the 48-year-old Provo, Utah resident says that day, rates jumped to $20 per hour for no apparent reason. To take advantage of it, he drove for 20 hours straight.
“I felt trapped,” Lindsey said in explaining his dangerously long shift. “I thought, 'I might never see it this good again.'”
For some Uber drivers, long shifts have become the norm. Dropping fares and profitable incentives lure them to keep driving past safe limits. Because the ride-hailing service doesn’t set a cap on how many hours its drivers can work at a time, there are few legal ways to stop them. By contrast, rival Lyft shuts off its app, which drivers need to find customers, after 14 hours at a time and doesn't let drivers back on for six hours to let them rest. As a result, the potential danger for Uber passengers and drivers alike continues to grow, even as efforts to limit driving hours spring up across the country.
“I’ve never come across Uber telling drivers how many hours they can work,” said Marvin Schulman, a Florida attorney who has represented traffic accident victims involving fatigued Uber drivers. “They can just drive around the clock.”
Driving later and longer
Dawn Gearhart, a policy coordinator for the App-Based Drivers Association, a Teamsters-affiliated group of Uber and Lyft drivers in a Seattle suburb, says she has heard complaints from "hundreds" of drivers who work up to 16 hours a day because of low pay or tempting incentives.
Gearhart says drivers receive notifications saying they aren't picking up enough passengers and they need to take on more rides if they want to keep driving for Uber -- which can happen even after a full day of work if drivers "consistently decline trip requests," though it won't lead to a permanent loss of their account, the company says. Others say that they'll just do "one more trip" so that they can reach their monetary goal for the day as they are struggling to make enough for basic expenses like gas and car insurance.
"Drivers say, 'everybody's doing it," -- that is, driving to the point of fatigue, Gearhart said. "It's a shared experience."
Uber says that it investigates reports of fatigued drivers and takes "appropriate actions" in response. In addition, the company sends in-app notifications to drivers in some cities reminding them about the importance of taking breaks and getting enough rest.
"We know that sleep is the only proven way to prevent drowsy or fatigued driving, which is why awareness is important," Uber spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said in a statement.
The company said that just 7% of drivers work more than 50 hours per week, while more than half of drivers in the U.S. use the Uber app less than 10 hours a week.
But for that small fraction of drivers working full-time with Uber, driving for long hours at a time can be a financial necessity. Uber says that overall driver earnings have remained stable despite fare cuts in dozens of cities that lowered the cost for passengers. However, drivers like Lindsey say they saw their profits drop over the past few years despite these assurances that more frequent rides would make up for the reduced fares. He quit driving for Uber in February.
Another former driver, Malene Comes, 45, quit after working long hours that still didn't help her make ends meet.
While living in Albuquerque last year, Comes found that weekday rates hovered around $5 per hour -- so she spent five months driving for Uber on Friday and Saturday nights, when rates were slightly higher. She drove from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- around 16 hours at a time -- to make $250 per weekend. But when her profits fell by $100 late last year, she could no longer afford the car she bought to drive for Uber in the first place.
Comes says she stayed alert with the help of numerous energy drinks, but the fatigue started to weigh on her as she was nearing the end of her 16-hour shifts, when she started making wrong turns.
"A few times I got worried about my fatigue level," Comes said. "But that was the only way I could make any kind of money."
A legal loophole?
Uber’s incentives may also motivate some drivers to spend more time on the road. The company offers bonuses for completing a certain number of rides within a given timeframe -- for example, Lindseysays he was once promised an extra $150 for completing 35 rides in a weekend. The bonuses can encourage them to keep driving for longer than they had originally planned.
Federal transportation laws require “passenger-carrying commercial vehicles” to drive for no longer than 10 hours at a time, and to take a break of at least eight hours in between shifts. But Uber can sidestep these regulations because it is not regulated as a common carrier, says C. Kerry Fields, a business law expert who teaches at the University of Southern California.
“A common carrier is liable for the safety of their passengers,” Fields said. “Uber says ‘we’re not liable for that – the driver is.’”
Fields added that federal labor laws mandate an average working week of no more than 48 hours, but Uber considers its drivers to be independent contractors rather than employees, which means that drivers set their own hours and cover their own expenses. As a result, Fields says, the company has no obligation to restrict working hours or pay overtime.
Struggling to stay awake
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 car accidents reported to the police each year directly result from driver fatigue, though no concrete data exists on how many of those involved Uber or other ride-hailing service drivers.
Irene Fassler – an attorney who works on cases involving sleep problems for consulting firm Circadian Technologies – says that “time on task,” or how long drivers work at a time, is an important factor in fatigue that can lead to accidents.
“When somebody is fatigued and is involved in a complex task such as driving, you will likely see slowed reaction times,” Fassler said. “You’re often going to experience a diminished ability to scan the multiple variables that are outside the windshield. You possibly have one or more lapses of attention – perhaps not remembering the last block or two.”
To change or not to change
Lindsey says he used to keep himself alert with copious amounts of caffeine. If he started to feel too tired to keep driving, he turned off the app and went home.
“You get Red Bulls and Mountain Dew and make it happen,” he said.
Fassler says that short-term solutions like drinking caffeinated drinks or taking naps can help keep drivers awake occasionally, but for those who are chronically fatigued and drive long hours day after day, the only permanent solution is to shorten shift times.
Some cities have already taken steps to do just that. The Chicago City Council capped daily driving for rideshare services at 10 hours a day in 2014. Uber agreed to limit its drivers’ working hours to 12 hours a day in New York City to comply with laws governing taxi drivers there. And the company has moved to restrict driving hours overseas in countries such as the United Kingdom, as Uber's UK head of public policy revealed in a letter to Parliament.
Initiatives in some states could further restrict maximum driving hours, like a Massachusetts proposal to limit rideshare drivers to 12 consecutive hours or 16 total hours a day. But Uber is fighting back, saying that the limit is a burden on drivers who appreciate the flexibility that setting their own hours entails. And Gearhart added that simply limiting hours on one app may not be enough, as drivers can just switch to working for Lyft when their Uber hours are up.
For his part, Lindsey thinks people are responsible enough to take themselves off the road when they feel they’ve reached their limit.
“No one wants to die for $8 an hour,” Lindsey said.