NEW YORK --It's a classic urban fear. A woman gets into a cab late at night and is attacked by the driver.
New York City's police added fuel to that fear with statistics showing 14 of the city's reported rapes last year, and two already this year, were committed by for-hire cabbies. And Police Commissioner William Bratton raised eyebrows with comments on the phenomenon that some felt blamed the victims.
"One of the areas of concern that we have is particularly young women coming out of clubs and bars," Commissioner William Bratton said during a radio interview on WNYC. "They're by themselves and intoxicated getting into a cab ... and we've seen an increase in assaults in those instances. So we're encouraging women to adopt the buddy system."
Some women who spoke to The Associated Press about taxi safety said Bratton's suggestion smacked of sexism.
"It's the idea that somehow we have a hand in this," said Jamie Lopez, 20, who works in retail and often takes cabs late at night because she finds them safer than the subway. "It's not the victim's fault."
At a news conference Monday, city politicians and women's rights advocates demanded more concrete measures to combat cabbie rapes. One proposal would require taxis and car services like Uber to have a back-seat panic button that could summon the police to a passenger in trouble.
"We want to ensure that when we're working with our police department, we're not encouraging women to implement buddy systems, but rather saying, 'You have a right to be safe,'" City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson said at the news conference. "If you decide to go out and enjoy yourself in any borough and you get into a cab, there is an expectation that you arrive at your destination safely."
Police said the suggestion was simply a safety measure for women, who are overwhelmingly the victims of such assaults.
The NYPD noted that the 14 reported rapes of women in cars for hire was out of 164 reported "stranger rapes," and among 1,439 total reported rapes last year. The figure is small, considering there are 440,000 yellow cab rides and up to 30,000 Uber rides in the city every day. It's actually far more likely for a driver to be attacked; at least three were killed in New York last year alone.
But instances of attacks by drivers have grabbed international headlines in recent months. In India, an Uber driver was sentenced to life in prison for raping a passenger. A driver in London was sentenced to 8 months for sex assault. In New Orleans, a cab driver was sentenced to five years for rape.
In New York, most of the cases last year involved women out at restaurants and bars late at night who hailed a taxi alone to go home.
In one case, prosecutors said, the driver of a taxi picked up a woman in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood, locked the doors, pulled over, climbed into the back seat with her and raped her. The driver pleaded not guilty to rape and other charges.
Another woman was attacked by a driver who displayed an Uber sign, only to discover he wasn't a member of the popular ride-hailing app.
New York has by far the largest fleet of for-hire cabs in the country, with more than 86,000 licensed vehicles; including taxis, Uber vehicles and livery cabs. All for-hire vehicles must be licensed, and the rules are stricter for Uber drivers in New York than anywhere else in the country.
Bhairavi Desai, president of the National Taxi Workers Alliance, a driver advocacy group, said a few attacks should not poison the profession. But she worries that the market has been flooded with the rise of the ride-hailing app industry, and that not all of the new drivers operate with professionalism.
Uber spokesman Matt Wing said technology is a core piece of how the company improves safety, noting that app discloses the driver's name and overall rating before a rider gets in, tracks every trip with GPS, and allows riders to share their trip with friends and family in real time.
Another woman who spoke to the AP about cab safety, Brittany Blonkvist, 25, an advertising exec at Vox Media, said she doesn't fear taxis, but she worried about how distracted some women are by their phones.
"They have no idea whether they're going home or someplace else," she said. "I pay attention when I get in."