Real life: Should you ever put your teenage daugh­ter in an Uber?

Many par­ents rely on the taxi app to avoid that late-night fer­ry­ing. But two re­cent con­vic­tions raise a dis­turb­ing ques­tion...

Woman's Own - - Contents -

Night-time and a 14-year-old girl climbs into a wait­ing cab. As the ve­hi­cle heads across South Lon­don to her sub­ur­ban fam­ily home, she and the 35-year-old driver, Spy­ros Ntou­nis, be­gin chat­ting.

He of­fers her chew­ing gum and asks what she has been up to and how old she is. Next, he gives her his tele­phone num­ber, say­ing if she ever needs a lift she should call him. He gets her to text him there and then, so he can save her num­ber. Ntou­nis then tells the girl she is ‘hot’ and that she has ‘nice lips’. She’s alarmed that a man old enough to be her fa­ther is talk­ing to her in this way and her un­ease grows as he slows the car to a 5mph crawl. ‘He said he wanted to spend more time with me,’ she later re­called.

Fi­nally ar­riv­ing home, the girl ran inside. But the next morn­ing, she re­ceived the first of sev­eral mes­sages. Ntou­nis asked if she was ‘OK’ be­fore, creep­ily, of­fer­ing to ‘give her lessons’ in any­thing she wanted. He lied, say­ing he was 26, and asked if he had ‘passed the age test’, then tried to per­suade her to meet him. ‘I would love it,’ he wrote.

Wor­ried, the girl told her par­ents about the un­wanted ad­vances. They called the po­lice and Ntou­nis was ar­rested. Fol­low­ing a trial at Kingston Crown Court a few weeks ago, he was convicted of at­tempt­ing to groom an un­der­age girl. He could face jail when he is sen­tenced this month.

A lucky escape, one might con­clude. But the de­tails of this case should ring fur­ther alarm bells – be­cause Ntou­nis was a driver for Uber, the con­tro­ver­sial com­pany be­hind the hugely pop­u­lar taxi-hail­ing app, even though he had a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion for dis­hon­esty and had been ac­cused of sex­u­ally ha­rass­ing other pas­sen­gers. In the months be­fore the in­ci­dent with the teenage girl, three other women had sep­a­rately com­plained to Uber about his in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­iour.

It was claimed he told the first he felt ‘horny’, while start­ing an ‘in­ap­pro­pri­ate’ con­ver­sa­tion with the sec­ond one, whom he stared at con­tin­u­ously as he drove. And the day be­fore pick­ing up the teen, he had asked a third woman if he could ‘sat­isfy her needs’.

What’s more, Ntou­nis’ case is not a one-off. On the same day that he was found guilty, Shahid Qureshi, an­other Uber driver, was convicted at In­ner Lon­don Crown Court of two counts of sex­ual as­sault and jailed. The first re­lated to a woman he groped in 2016, the sec­ond to a 16-year-old ex­change stu­dent. His ini­tial vic­tim had com­plained to Uber, who had not re­ported the mat­ter to po­lice – leav­ing him free to carry on work­ing.

Driv­ers bend the rules

Both of th­ese cases will fuel con­cerns about how Uber op­er­ates. Ac­cord­ing to a com­pany rule, un­der-18s should not travel alone in Uber cars. ‘Driv­ers are not sup­posed to pick up peo­ple un­der 18 — but if they get a job and the fare’s un­der 18. What do they do?’ asks Steve Mc­na­mara, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Li­censed Taxi Driv­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and a vo­cal op­po­nent of Uber. ‘Of course, they take it.’ He adds, ‘The rea­son Uber is so

‘This case isn’t a one-off’

pop­u­lar is be­cause it’s cheap. So, rather than get out of bed to pick up their daugh­ter from her mate’s, par­ents send an Uber. But peo­ple are sac­ri­fic­ing com­mon sense for a pound or two. Why would you put your 16-year-old daugh­ter in a stranger’s car?’ Of course, com­ing from a ‘ri­val’ or­gan­i­sa­tion such words could be sour grapes. Be­cause since Uber launched here in 2012, it’s been a huge hit – one that has se­verely dented the in­come of other taxi driv­ers and cab firms.

Uber has over 40,000 driv­ers across 40 UK towns and cities. But the is­sue of pas­sen­ger safety re­mains. Fig­ures last year sug­gested that sex at­tacks in­volv­ing Uber driv­ers could be run­ning at al­most one a week, and last Au­gust it emerged po­lice had writ­ten to Trans­port for Lon­don (TFL), the au­thor­ity re­spon­si­ble for licensing pri­vate hire driv­ers in the cap­i­tal, to ex­press con­cerns the com­pany was ‘cov­er­ing up’ sex at­tacks to pro­tect its rep­u­ta­tion.

There was more drama last Septem­ber when TFL stripped Uber of its li­cence for not be­ing a ‘fit and proper’ com­pany. Uber is ap­peal­ing the de­ci­sion and is al­lowed to con­tinue op­er­at­ing in Lon­don dur­ing the ap­peal process. This Fe­bru­ary, it vowed to proac­tively re­port com­plaints to po­lice and to set up a hot­line for pas­sen­gers. Of course, for some, that may be too late…

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