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Uber updates app safety features following sexual assault allegations. Good enough?

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Julio Cortez/AP/File

(Read caption) Smart phones displaying Uber car availability in New York. Uber's year of bad press came to a head last month, with allegations of drivers sexually assaulting passengers in Chicago and Boston.

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We weren't invited to Uber's New Year's Eve party, but we have to imagine that company execs were trying to blot out the memory of 2014. A new upgrade to the ridesharing start-up's smartphone app may signal a more sober approach to doing business in 2015.

BACKGROUND

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Uber's 2014 troubles began before the year properly started, when a driver hit and killed a pedestrian in San Francisco on December 31, 2013. Because the driver was between fares, Uber claimed that he wasn't covered by the company's insurance policy -- a position that didn't sit well with the general public. Bowing to pressure, Uber and its main competitor in the ridesharing space, Lyft, upgraded their insurance policies in March to prevent such troubles in the future, but the damage to Uber's image was already done.   

Then, there was Europe, the site of many, many protests against Uber. While average Guiseppes and Josephines seemed ambivalent about Uber -- or even liked it, in theory -- cabbies on the Continent weren't happy about its arrival. 

And of course, who could forget Uber's Emil Michael, who suggested to a room of journalists that the company might use its stash of cash to dig up dirt on reporters who write nasty things about Uber in the press? (Even more bizarre:Michael wasn't fired for his remarks.)

That fiasco was followed by rate hikes in Sydney during the hostage crisis and massive bills for New Yorkers on New Year's Eve

In sum: not a great year.

SEXUAL ASSAULTS IN BOSTON, CHICAGO

As if that weren't enough bad press, Uber has had to deal with allegations of drivers sexually assaulting passengers in two major U.S. cities.

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In Boston, not one, not two, but three women reported being sexually assaulted by Uber drivers over a span of 24 hours. In at least one of the cases, it appears that the passenger entered a vehicle that she believed to be her Uber ride -- a misconception that the driver seems to have encouraged before he assaulted her. However, details about the other two instances aren't as clear.

In Chicago in November, a woman fell asleep in the back of her Uber ride, then awoke in her driver's apartment as she was being assaulted. 

This week, Uber updated its app -- at least for riders in Boston and Chicago -- to help prevent such incidents in the future. In those locales, the app now features a photo of the driver and the corresponding car's license plate number. Users are encouraged to verify that both match the car they're entering.

OUR TAKE

Though evidence is still emerging from the cases described above, it's clear that Uber needs to do a better job of ensuring the safety of its passengers. Providing identifying details about drivers and their cars is important because Uber cars don't stand out the way that common yellow taxis do, which can lead to confusion among those using the service.

However, the app upgrade only addresses the problem of non-Uber drivers posing as employees to lure unsuspecting fares into their vehicles. In at least one of the instances above -- possibly more -- the alleged assailant was actually employed by Uber, meaning that the new app feature wouldn't have set off warning bells with the rider.

Uber says that it conducts background checks on all applicants, but a proposed law in Massachusetts demands that Uber and companies like it refuse to hire sex offenders or anyone convicted of a serious crime in the previous 10 years. If there's proof that such an approach can reduce incidents like those mentioned above, Uber should consider implementing similar policies around the globe, without waiting for governments to force it to do so.