For Terri “Write,” her shifts as an Uber driver in San Francisco begin in Stockton, where she lives with her husband and young son. After the hour-and-a-half drive into the city — longer if there is traffic — she turns on the app and starts working. She may drive for as long as 14 to 16 hours before finding a quiet place to pull over, put the seat of her Prius down, and go to sleep for a few hours. After five days of this — and as long as 60 hours driving for Uber, total — she goes home with about $1,100 in net pay, she tells SF Weekly.
While those earnings are above average for rideshare drivers, surveys show, Write's story is typical: At night in the city, parking lots of 7-Elevens and 24-hour Safeways are full of “rideshare” drivers from out of town, too many miles away from the beds to go home, catching just enough sleep to keep driving.
“Some people just grind, that's what they do,” says Write, a pseudonym she's also using for a self-published memoir about her time behind the wheel, titled Exuberant. “If you don't work, you don't eat.”
Apart from cheaper fares, the main difference between Uber and the taxi cabs the “rideshare” company seeks to supplant is how long drivers work. Taxi drivers are limited to 12-hour shifts. Lyft drivers see their app deactivated for six hours after 14 hours on the road. But for Uber drivers, there's no such limit.
Earlier this year, Uber cut fares in most American cities. After the subsequent complaints from drivers — like the ones who protested Uber headquarters in January, claiming take-home pay of $800 or less for 60-hour weeks — Uber recently announced a 20 percent bonus for drivers who complete more than 100 trips a week. There are also guaranteed earnings for completing a certain number of trips per hour (2.1 trips during rush hour; fewer on off-hours).
With serious incentives for a driver to be on the road as much as possible — and with drivers in some cities boasting in online forums about completing the “100-hour challenge,” a race to a three-digit work week — there's a chance that your driver, who may be commuting from Stockton, Fresno, or even Los Angeles to drive you around for $1.15 a mile, is seriously underslept.
Still, if long hours are sapping Uber drivers' souls, there's no proof that overlong driving shifts are causing havoc on the roadway (unless you count double-parking on Market Street to pick up a ride).
Drowsy driving causes about 100,000 accidents nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (The California DMV says a sleepy driver is a “hazard,” mentioned in the same breath as someone drunk or on drugs.) Just how many accidents involve Uber or Lyft drivers is not clear — according to the most recent data available from the California Public Utilities Commission, there were about 1,200 collisions in California involving app-hailed taxi alternatives in July 2015, an increase of 100 percent in six months.
But the bulk of those were when the passenger opened the door into traffic, according to the PUC. Instead of sleepy drivers, the biggest threat to Uber customers is apparently themselves.
Write, meanwhile, is not complaining. After she lost her corporate gig after the company relocated out of state, “I'm just happy to have a job,” she says.