Uber and the narrative bias

Following the alleged rape of a Delhi woman by a cab driver who she’d engaged via the Uber app, the Delhi government has banned Uber. Union home minister rajnath Singh has issued a notification to other state governments to do the same though union transport minister Nitin Gadkari has rightly called it a silly idea.

Irrespective of whether the service gets banned, fewer people are likely to use it. A survey conducted by Mint newspaper has shown that nearly half the people surveyed will not use an Uber following the incident (the survey doesn’t mention how many of those surveyed are existing users of Uber).

About a year back, two buses of the Volvo make (one travelling from Bangalore to Hyderabad and the other from Bangalore to Pune) caught fire, resulting in passenger deaths. While the government of Karnataka mercifully didn’t ban Volvo buses (instead simply subjecting them to safety checks and insisting on emergency exits), there was a large backlash from the public who eschewed travel by Volvos in favour of travel by other means of transport.

In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, Americans eschewed air travel in favour of driving. Gerd Gigerenzer, a specialist in risk, has estimated that 1595 additional people died in the year following 9/11 on account of driving rather than taking flights.

The question that arises is what those current users of Uber who don’t want to use the service any more are going to do – surely they must resort to alternate means of transport to commute? The question they need to ask themselves is If the new chosen means of transport is safer than Uber!

People abandoning Uber in droves following last weekend’s incident is due to what I can the “narrative bias”. Last weekend’s incident has introduced the narrative that Uber is not necessarily safe – at least it is not as safe as people assumed it to be prior to the incident. And this narrative is likely to lead to people reacting, and in a direction that is not necessarily better for them!

So if people abandon Uber, or if it gets banned (the proposal is to ban other app based cab services too ), what is the alternative, and is it safer than Uber? Extremely unlikely, If the answer is auto rickshaws for example. We might as well end up in a situation like what happened on the highways in the US after 9/11.

News by definition is spectacular and spectacular incidents are much more likely to be reported than unspectacular ones (a favourite example I use is – how many times do we see a headline that says ” Ashok Leyland bus catches fire. Passengers dead “? The fact that we seldom see such headlines doesn’t mean that Ashok Leyland buses never catch fire). This, however, doesn’t mean that policymaking, too, be based on spectacular events only.

Any regulation, and decisions by people, should be based on rational expectations and not be biased by narratives and the spectacular. There is always pressure on the policymaker to ” do something “. This however doesn’t mean that anything will do. Decisions need to be based on reason and not narratives!

PostScript: I’ve written this post sitting in the back of an Uber taxi in Bangalore

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