There's a hitch in ride-sharing programs

Industry watchers called for ride-hailing apps' decisions to be made based on safety, not on profit, and law enforcement shall also step up their surveillance and punish violators. 

Didi suspended its Hitch ride-sharing service for the second time in three months after a driver murdered a 20-year-old woman who arranged a ride with him, triggering public concern about the safety of the low-cost transportation option.

China’s police and Transport Ministry said over the weekend that Didi had “unshirkable responsibility” for the rape and murder case of a ride-sharing passenger by a Hitch driver in the eastern city of Wenzhou.

Since its launch three years ago, Hitch has logged up 1 billion rides. During this year’s Spring Festival travel rush, 7.6 million people went back to hometowns by “hitchhiking” trips booked on Didi.

Despite the convenience and cheaper cost, consumers are now viewing the concept of getting into a vehicle with strangers with a more jaundiced eye.

Hitch drivers don't have to go through normal vehicle and driver vetting processes. Didi charges a 10 percent commission on every ride booked through its site. The service facilitates drivers picking up passengers who are going in their direction, after riders publish their destinations, locations and preferred departure times.

Another popular ride-hailing application, Dida Pinche, charges a service fee of one yuan per ride and five yuan for a round trip.

Many people are now calling for nonprofit car-pooling to be encouraged, but drawing up criteria to separate not-for-profit from commercial operations is tricky.

Hitch rides only cost about half as much as a taxi ride and are especially convenient for long distance and intercity travel.

Some people are suggesting a speed dial function be put on vehicles that pick up riders to notify police of any abnormalities during a ride. Self-protection tips are being offered for female riders.

After a flight attendant was murdered by her Hitch driver in May in Zhengzhou in central Henan Province, Didi removed a function where drivers could leave comments visible to other drivers about the appearance of passengers Some included descriptions of women such as "beauty" or “sweet looking.”

The such comments were deemed irrelevant to the car-sharing function. Didi also withheld all personal information and profile pictures of passengers and drivers from third parties. However, that feature was re-introduced again earlier this month.

The Ministry of Transport and six other ministries called on a joint-supervision campaign after the Zhengzhou murder case to strengthen scrutiny over both rides-in-progress and after-journey services.

Didi also said it is encouraging users to report any mismatch between cars registered on its platform and the license plates of drivers who arrive to pick up a passenger.

In the Wenzhou case, the company failed to respond to a rider's complaint against a driver just a day before he murdered his passenger. The rider surnamed Lin alleged the driver took her to a remote place and then followed her once she got out of the car.

Some consumers are raking Didi over the coals for its lack of responsibility and its decadent moral values.

Following the Wenzhou murder case, Didi said it was suspending its Hitch service indefinitely.

Didi was also criticized by police for hiding behind its "user privacy" criteria when a friend of the victim first sent out an alert on WeChat about her friend’s disappearance.

The head of Didi's Hitch service and the vice president of Didi's customer service were removed from their positions.

Analyst Chen Liteng at the China E-commerce Research Center said Didi needs to take a serious look at the Hitch service if it ever hopes to put it back into operation. Potential risks need to be identified in the same way as chauffer services vet their drivers.

“Didi needs to take corrective measures not just indulge in marketing stunts,” Chen said. “It needs to be responsive in emergencies.”

Criminal intent may be difficult to predict, but the company can create an environment that does more to safeguard the safety of all participants in ride-sharing programs, analysts said. Decisions should be based on safety, not profit.

More than 25 million rides occur each day through Didi's App, with more than 21 million registered drivers and car owners, according to the company.

About a dozen Chinese cities have released guidelines on hitchhiking services. Shanghai’s version was released at the end of 2016. It specifies two hitchhiking trips for each vehicle every day, but left it to the car-hailing platforms to decide legal liability and ride fares.

Liu Chunquan, a partner with Duan & Duan Law Firm, said proper laws and regulations are needed to specify liability and few companies are likely to rein in their greed for further expansion without prodding.

"Ride hailing apps differ from online merchandising platforms that sell physical goods,” Liu said. “They require utmost attention in terms of safety.”

Law enforcement authorities are being urged to step up their surveillance and punish violators.

Removing Didi's Hitch service or shutting down the car-hailing platform once and for all doesn’t help people, especially in smaller cities, who lack low-cost transportation alternatives. That market demand means new players will always emerge if others are shut down.

Offering compensations after the fact when problems occur is not good enough, many people are saying. Companies involved in the sector need to take a proactive stance. 

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