Alex Carmein was heading home for the night when Uber sent him one last fare.
It was 2:30 a.m., and two women wanted a ride home from a party in north Minneapolis. When Carmein showed up, however, a group of four or five men surrounded his car and demanded money.
When he told them he didn’t have any, one of them put him in a chokehold and another grabbed his wallet.
He’d had no training on how to avoid an ambush, or any other potentially dangerous situation. “I think it would have helped,” said Carmein, 25, who quit driving for Uber shortly after the robbery last year. “But Uber doesn’t really have any training.”
Unlike at traditional taxi companies, training is optional at the increasingly popular ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul do not require drivers to pass a test or prove their competence, and neither does either company.
Though Uber and Lyft must make educational information available, many drivers say they never look at it. Informational sessions that Uber started offering last year are voluntary.
“The only safety thing they tell us is to have a hands-free phone holder and to keep your eyes on the road,” said Rachel Lemay, who has driven for both Uber and Lyft in Minnesota. “It is a very real threat to both passengers and the drivers.”
The rules are more demanding in several other cities, according to a Star Tribune review of local laws and ordinances in the top 25 metros. In five cities, new drivers are required to pass a test to show they have mastered such subjects as defensive driving, local geography and the risks facing drivers.
But Uber representatives have resisted calls for more intensive training, saying it would make it too hard to recruit enough drivers. Spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the company is taking steps to improve safety for its riders and passengers.
“We’re focused on continuing to equip our driver partners with the resources they need to help ensure we’re providing a safe, reliable transportation option,” Whaling said.
Grant Wilson, the top ride-sharing regulator in Minneapolis, said the training requirements for taxi drivers are more stringent because cabbies “operate in a different climate” than Uber and Lyft drivers.
“They must accept hailed or dispatched customers without ever knowing the passenger’s identity, plus they are required to accept cash fares and have cash change,” Wilson said. “I have viewed the online training for both Uber and Lyft and was impressed with the information they provide.”
Lyft officials declined to answer questions regarding training.
Some council members think the companies should do more. None defended the current rules.
“They might be acting more like taxi companies than we thought at the beginning,” Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon said. “Maybe we have to look at regulating them more similarly as well.”
St. Paul Council Member Dan Bostrom, a former police officer, said Uber and Lyft should do the same type of training that cab companies do. “You are taking people’s lives in your hands when you take them in a car, so those drivers should be able to demonstrate that they know the rules of the road and they know how to handle a car properly and safely.”
The drivers face many risks once they’re out on the road.
In the past two years, at least five people driving for Uber or Lyft were robbed by their passengers, and four more were attacked. Another driver’s car was stolen after he broke the rules and picked up two unknown passengers on the street.
In most cases, police records show, the drivers failed to notice warning signs or took risky actions that might have caused the problem. For instance, an Uber driver was robbed last year after he parked his car in a dark alley at a customer’s request.
Another danger is distracted driving, because drivers for the ride-sharing services are dependent on cellphone apps to pick up customers and get them to the right destination.
Trey Lowe said he was run over by a distracted Uber driver while he was on his bicycle after a late-night sandwich delivery near the University of Minnesota.
“I tried to swerve to avoid him, but he ended up running over me with his right front tire,” recalled Lowe, whose right leg was seriously injured. “The driver was very apologetic. He said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you. I was looking at my GPS.’ ”
Hayden Wegener, a college student who was riding in the car, said the Uber driver had gotten lost.
“It was poor judgment on his part,” Wegener said. “I gave him a low rating because you are not supposed to hit pedestrians.”
Uber said it was aware of the accident but chose not to take any action against the driver, who had a clean driving record and is highly rated.
Uber and Lyft are required to provide safety videos and online training opportunities for interested drivers in the Twin Cities. But applicants do not have to participate.
Most of the drivers interviewed by the Star Tribune said they ignored the material or were unaware of it. For the most part, drivers said they were simply told to obey all local traffic laws and avoid texting and driving at the same time.
“There was really no training at all,” said Amy Keegan, who spent a year driving for Uber in Minneapolis. “To me, that was very appealing — to not have to commit any more time than I really wanted to.”
For Uber drivers who want more information, the company started a voluntary one-hour “educational forum” at its Roseville office last year. But the class bears little resemblance to the kind of training that taxi drivers receive in the Twin Cities.
At a recent session, about 40 drivers showed up to listen as company representatives walked them through a technical review of Uber’s phone app. Drivers also received a brief history of the company and tips on how to maximize their income.
Drivers were warned not to pick up passengers on the street, but they were not instructed on other rules of the road or quizzed on their knowledge. The only significant discussion of safety came up during a 10-minute question-and-answer session, when a couple of drivers wanted advice on how to deal with unruly or intoxicated passengers.
The instructor noted that drivers have the right to refuse any trip, and advised calling the authorities if someone refused to leave the vehicle. “If you ever feel like safety is an issue, take care of yourself first,” he advised.
In a written statement, Uber spokeswoman Whaling said the company recently rolled out tracking software that allows the company to keep better tabs on its drivers. Whaling said Uber can now contact drivers who are caught speeding or using the brakes too aggressively. The system also sends a warning to drivers caught holding their phone in their hand, instead of using a dashboard mount.
“We believe that technology, like that used by Uber, provides an incredible opportunity to improve road safety in new and innovative ways,” Whaling said.
The training program for taxi drivers in the Twin Cities typically includes at least 13 hours in the classroom.
In a conference room at the suburban headquarters of Blue & White Taxi, the largest taxi company in the Twin Cities, a recent class featured a 10-minute video on the dangers of distracted driving.
The video focused on a 2014 incident in which a driver killed a woman while she was bicycling in the country with her daughters. In a jailhouse interview, the driver told viewers he never saw the woman because he was looking at his cellphone at the time of the crash.
Class instructor Fred Anderson told his students the driver was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit because he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide.
“Really think about this,” Anderson said. “You are not a very good driver when you are talking on your cellphone.”
At the one-hour session, the students also were grilled on the road rules in Minnesota and given numerous tips on how they can stay out of trouble. Other sessions cover customer service and local geography. When the classes are over, Anderson’s students must correctly answer at least 75 percent of 53 questions before they’re qualified to hit the road.
Many lessons come from Anderson’s 23-year career in the taxi business, including the night he was robbed after picking up three men outside a bar.
He told students he should have told them to get out of his car after he saw them whispering in the back seat and then change their destination in the middle of the trip.
“I was robbed two times,” Anderson said. “The first time was my fault. If I hadn’t made those mistakes, I wouldn’t have been robbed.”
Anderson said he worries that people driving for Uber and Lyft don’t realize the risks they’re facing.
“When I started driving a cab,” he said, “I had no idea either.”