I’m just trying to get home

A car ride home should never be a fight for survival.

Passenger in the back seat of a ride share vehicle. Graphic by Nina Moothedath.

*Content Warning: This story mentions reports of sexual assault.*

My pulse quickened, and my throat felt as dry as sandpaper. This was supposed to be a routine trip back to Los Angeles after Easter weekend, a rideshare I had taken several times before.

“The chances of you being in the car with a clinically insane person in Los Angeles are slim,” the driver said.

I nervously picked at the skin around my nails. That’s exactly what a teenage girl taking a Lyft alone from LAX doesn’t want to hear. Was it paranoia or the thick scent of Black Ice car freshener that clouded my ability to think?

I locked eyes with the driver in the rearview mirror, his pupils tracing the silk ribbon that lined the white lace shirt I wore that morning. My silence said it all.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” he said. “We need gas. You don’t want to stop in the middle of the freeway, do you? I mean, if that’s what you want.”

He made my skin crawl. I was at war with myself, questioning the instincts that warned me I was in a dangerous situation. Why did he pick me up when he was low on fuel? Is he allowed to make a stop without my consent? Am I projecting implicit biases onto this man?

“There’s a lot of bad men in this world, but I’m not one of them,” he continued.

God, I prayed, should I trust the stranger behind the steering wheel?

“No, I’m not comfortable with that,” I said. “How many miles do you have left?”

But he already ended the route navigation, changing course to a 76 Gas Station. We were en route to a different location, driving down streets I had never seen before. Suddenly, every Trojans Respect Consent module I had ever sat through, every horror movie murder I had ever screamed at, every combat strategy I had ever practiced at my all-girls’ high school resurfaced in my mind. Each recollection presented the same daunting question: Was I prepared to fight for my life?

When the driver asked me if I was familiar with the area, I said yes. When he called me Julia Roberts from “Pretty Woman,” I laughed so as not to offend him. When he questioned what I studied, I said I was a journalism student who reported on the Los Angeles Police Department. When he said he could feel my fear, I lied: I wasn’t afraid, I told him, but my shaking hands suggested otherwise.

Click. He rolled up the windows and locked me inside his car, closing the door as he disappeared into the gas station market. I was stuck, trapped in a stranger’s vehicle without the key.

I wished I had hugged my brother for a second longer before I left that morning.

My brain racked for a way out, mentally crossing off names as I shared my location with as many people as I could. I sent descriptions of my driver to my roommates, scanning the area for women and children – families I could somehow signal to. But it was Easter Sunday, and the streets were empty. I felt powerless.

Should I use my elbow to break through the window? Crawl through the back seat and kick my way out of the trunk? Call 911? Request a new Lyft?

Say my prayers now?

Then my phone vibrated with a Smart Trip Check-In from Lyft: “Just checking in. It looks like this ride is taking longer than usual. Do you need help?”

My fingers hovered over the notification. I don’t know, did I?

I was stuck in fear, my breathing suffocated by the seat belt strapped across my chest. I decided not to call Lyft, because after all, he hadn’t hurt me, hadn’t touched me. What would they do?

Nearly 10 minutes later, he emerged from the market and began pumping gas. Before we left, he opened his route navigation and asked if we were headed to where I lived. I said nothing, but he pressed: “For a young girl I get why you would be scared. But we need to get to your destination, right?”

I told him we were going to school, and the wheels began turning. After an hour-long trip from LAX, which should have taken 25 minutes or less, I immediately got out of the car when it came to a stop at the USC Village. Shutting the door behind me, I nervously looked over my shoulder, terrified that the driver might note where I lived.

That’s when I broke. Crying alone as I rode the elevator up to my apartment, I imagined a million different outcomes in that instant, caught between what happened and what could’ve happened. Was I nearly abducted, or am I overthinking? There were so many questions that I didn’t have the answers to.

In the days that followed, I spoke with experts about what to do if faced with a potential threat.

Nelson Nio, the founder and owner of SHIELD Women’s Self Defense System – a self defense program in Marina Del Rey – said that even when the danger is only a perceived threat, he advises students to always follow their guts.

“Your instinct has a way of knowing what your intellect can’t comprehend,” Nio said. “If you’re in the car, and you feel something’s not right, get out right away. Say, ‘Hold on,’ then open the door and cancel [the ride].”

David Carlisle, the assistant chief of the USC Department of Public Safety, reiterated these measures, alongside not walking alone and checking the license plate before entering cars. He added that DPS offers a free rape, aggression and defense training program for students at the beginning of each semester, and he also encouraged students to get the LiveSafe mobile app. This enables them to share their real time location with DPS, anonymously send tips and share images or videos of a driver.

Sonia Savur, a junior majoring in quantitative biology, said that these safety measures are a universal code of behavior for women, one instilled by habit and advised to girls time and time again.

“We know that already. But I also think there has to be a lot of unspoken communication,” she said. “If the drivers are making comments, if we see drinks on the dashboard, there’s eye contact or texting each other in the back row.”

Amanda Perez, a senior communication major, agreed, adding that with the university’s return to “shryft,” or shared Lyft program (where students are paired with random passengers going to the same location on free Lyft rides within a 1.5 mile radius around campus), she’s extra attentive to sharing her trip details with others.

Perez said that in some instances, she has considered playing TikTok videos with the hashtag #safetycall, which are clips of male users simulating fake phone calls with passengers. “I’m always like, ‘Should I pull this video out now, or am I making it a bigger deal than it really is?’ It’s sad that I need the voice of another man to make me seem protected,” Perez said.

But when faced with danger, sometimes she can’t decipher between fear and instinct.

“I like to think I’d know what to do if faced with a potentially dangerous situation, but I don’t think anyone really knows until it happens to you.”

She added, “A car ride home shouldn’t be a fight for survival, but it is.”

Annalisa Enrile, a professor of social work at the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and an anti-sex trafficking advocate, said that while physical vigilance is important, the hardest battle is also on the psychological front.

“Actions speak louder than words. For instance, it is common for perpetrators to say things like in your example, ‘I’m not a bad guy.’ But if their actions don’t match it, you should watch out for that,” Enrile said.

She added that common intimidation tactics among perpetrators include “using condescending language” and “assertion of their agenda versus what you are comfortable with or what has been agreed to.”

Carlisle said that since the university’s partnership with Lyft in 2016, only a handful of  safety incidents have been reported to DPS from students: “I believe when I researched this a few months ago, out of those millions of rides, I can only recall maybe four problems caused by a Lyft driver. So I guess you could do the math to talk about the number of complaints we’ve received for misconduct by a driver.”

According to Michelle Garcia, the senior associate director of USC Transportation and head of the school’s Lyft partnership, the university meets every two weeks with representatives from Lyft. She said to utilize the reporting feature embedded in the Lyft app should something occur on the road. The reports are anonymously sent to drivers after being reviewed by 24/7 response lines, who ensure that riders and reported drivers don’t get paired again. For my report, I chatted with a team member about being taken off route and made to feel unsafe, and a $5 Lyft credit was my compensation.

Lyft press did not respond to requests for comment on the process of determining the compensation for reported rides, nor to questions about whether or not passengers have access to driver behavior reports.

According to 2021 community safety reports, which were published following a 2018 CNN investigation into sexual assault incidents in rideshares, Uber and Lyft found that there were over 10,000 reports of sexual assault on rides over a three year period. Lyft recorded 4,158 incidents of sexual assault, while Uber acknowledged a total of 5,981 reports from 2017-2018 and an additional 3,824 incidents from 2019-2020.

Lyft and Uber press did not respond to questions from Annenberg Media as to why community safety reports haven’t been published since their initial studies in 2021.

Ultimately, the rideshare business is integral to campus culture at USC. Garcia confirmed that each school year, USC averages nearly 1 million rides using the shryft and fryft models. This semester alone, the university sits at about 30,000 requested shryfts a week.

With that many students taking Lyfts, Perez said it’s easy for students to become desensitized to the reality of rideshares: “We use Lyfts so often that people forget you’re literally in a car with a stranger.”

As I sat with my emotions following my Lyft scare, wiping tears from my face under the string lights of my living room, a voice in my head told me that I was being dramatic, and that I should’ve been smarter than to stay in the car.

But the outside voices, from family and friends texting to check in on me, to experts like Enrile showing me empathy, told me that I wasn’t.

“It is a good thing to be vigilant and not have a false sense of security, but women should not confuse that with thinking it was their fault if violence happens,” Enrile said. “It is not our job to predict the violent behavior of someone else.”

I want to acknowledge that I’m now hyper aware whenever I enter a rideshare. But when I unbuckle my seatbelt, and the strap comes off my chest, I also want to release the fear that kept me in the car that day.

I’m just trying to get home.