The frustrations caused by stinky passengers

Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue. And some days when you’re the statue it feels like you’re surrounded by ibises instead of pigeons. Though an exaggeration, here’s one day that felt like that for me.

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Almost every day driving for Uber, something happens that will really annoy me. The vast majority of those would be things that others drivers do on the road; its one of the reasons I have the calming music on when I’m driving, as anyone who’s commented on it while in my car would know. But sometimes its what passengers do – or would-be passengers – that inspire in me the kind of feeling where you want to give something a Basil Fawlty-style “damn good thrashing”.

One such day started with me in the city on other business. (To be fair, the day had started quite some time before as it was about 7pm, but it was the start of my working day that day.) I figured it’d be a good time to switch on and possibly get someone headed home after work, so I did. Sure enough, within a minute or two I got a ping for a pickup in Surry Hills, not too far from Central Station. I was slightly concerned by the rating of 4.2 that I was shown for the passenger; at least at the time of writing its the lowest I’ve ever seen for a passenger. As I approach I spot someone on the other side of the road standing exactly where the pin on the map is, so I drove past. I knew there was a roundabout at the next intersection where I could make a u-turn without hassle – I wasn’t driving past him because the guy looked shady or I was being nasty. I pull up next to him, and sure enough he gets in the car along with another guy who had crossed the road. As they’re getting in I start the trip, and am rewarded with a destination in Bella Vista. (I don’t remember the exact address, and even if I did I wouldn’t put here: even with my small readership I know not to intentionally take away someone’s anonymity like that.)

If you’re not familiar with Sydney’s geography and don’t know where Bella Vista is in relation to the Sydney CBD, you’re not alone because I didn’t at the time and to be honest I’m still not exactly sure. I could see from the map at the time that it was quite a distance away, and when I got the navigation details showing on my phone, I was able to estimate that my share of the fare after Uber’s cut was going to be in the $55-$60 range; an excellent start to a day that, if I’m being honest could and should have started earlier than it had. The only down side to these longer rides that go away from the “core” area is the unpredictability of the next ride: how long will it be before I get the request, how far and for how long will I have to drive to get it and then get to it… Those all vary a lot more away from the core than when in and around it, and can result in a lot more down time waiting than otherwise. Still, you take the ride and hope for the best at the other end, especially when the longer the ride, the more it tends to at least help pay for any delays afterwards.

“Seinfeld” Season 4, Episode 21: “The Smelly Car”

Anyway, back to the ride. It took me a few moments, but I was hit with the strong smell of cigarette smoke. Normally when that happens I get some sort of warning, usually by seeing the passenger putting out the cigarette they were smoking as they see me approach to pick them up. Maybe it was the “sneaky” second passenger I wasn’t aware of that had been smoking, but either way all I could do was try to subtly limit my breathing and cover my mouth to try and lower how much poison I was consuming, and turn the dial on the air freshener up to 11. It only goes to 3, but I tried nonetheless. Oh, did I mention that it started raining pretty much the moment the smell hit me, so I couldn’t put the window down either. I now understood why their rating might have been as low as it was.

So I’m slowly dying, and they’re talking about whatever it is – when there’s more than one passenger I tend to listen only close enough to see if I’m being asked a question or being engaged some way – when the first guy says that they’ll be going to Chippendale first to drop off the second guy, or for the second guy to get something from his apartment and then keep going… That part was confusing, because the story seemed to change at several points. At each point I say I’m fine with the detour, especially seeing as its likely only to be a very small one from our path already. Then they go back to discussing “how long it’ll take”, which I’m trying to follow to work out whether I’ll be waiting for one or both of them to go in and then for one or both to come back to the car before going to the end of the journey. I say “trying to follow”, because again it was confusing as to what was going to happen – either they were actually working it out or they needed more improv classes to respond to what their partner was saying, not get to the line they had in mind already. Eventually its decided that they’ll end the ride with me at Chippendale, because they don’t know how long it will take there. (I still couldn’t work out what the “it” was.)

Though it was disappointing to miss out on the big fare – it wound up being about $50 less than what I’d estimated at the beginning – the way the smell seemed to be permeating in the car, I’d be happy to get them out before the smell became a permanent fixture. It was even less disappointing as the ride was finishing up. They went back to whatever conversation they were having, which I’m hearing even less of as I’m concentrating on navigating the narrow streets of Chippendale at night in the rain. While making a turn, I thought I heard a racial epithet. (I’m definitely not repeating it here.) As I started to dismiss it in my head as having misheard it, I heard it again, this time clear as day and in a context that eliminated the possibility of it being even a poor taste joke let alone an intelligent discussion. I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been in the process of pulling over to let them out when I heard it clearly that I would have kicked them out. I’m not sure I have the confidence to do that, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t say anything about it to them even as they were leaving. I did however ensure that their rating didn’t improve, and reported them to Uber as well for good measure.

I’d never been so relieved to miss out on a long ride like what was originally booked.

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Smoking [in an Uber] is bad for your [rating] health

Hopefully no one comes to this post surprised by the idea that smoking is bad for your health. Though I can imagine there are people who haven’t thought it through, it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that smoking can be bad for your Uber rating.

I feel as though this shouldn’t be a controversial opinion to post. I feel as though this should be obvious to anyone who reads this, whether they have participated in any way with ride sharing, or in fact if they’ve existed in the world and are at all aware of what smoking is.

Don’t smoke in my car. If you do you’ll be told to get out. I don’t have anything to safely handle the cigarette being extinguished, don’t have the desire to carry around a “fresh” cigarette butt in my car, and don’t want to be in any way responsible for littering by it being tossed out of my car. Don’t smoke in my car.

Now the basic concept – if not the reasons I mentioned above – should be reasonably obvious. However I have had someone try to light up a cigarette after I picked them up once. I figured I was safe from that this time because they’d just put out a cigarette before they got in when I picked them up. They sat in the back seat, and within a couple of minutes, I heard them put the window down – which seemed odd given that it was late on a cold night – and then a sound that I soon realised was them trying to get their lighter going. Looking in the rear-view mirror I saw them light up the cigarette in their mouth, and told them no. They argued that they had the window down, but I told them that wasn’t good enough, so they looked around for a moment and then threw the lit cigarette out the window.

I should’ve kicked them out. I was relatively new to Ubering, hadn’t had any incidents where I felt like the passenger had done something wrong, let alone thought about finishing the ride early and telling them to get out. I hadn’t even had an incident where afterwards I thought that maybe I should’ve kicked them out at the time. Until this ride at least. I let them stay, and fumed through the rest of the trip at the audacity of them to light up in the first place, and then the self-entitlement to complain about not being able to smoke when they were paying for the car ride, and how other riders let them smoke. Looking back on it the next morning, I resolved to not let that happen again, and that I would take a hard line with smokers in the future. It also meant that when much later I put signs up in the car relating to my Ubering, the first thing I knew to put on the sign was “No Smoking”.

A visual representation of what the car smells like when you get in just after having a smoke.
But smoking in an Uber isn’t the only way for a smoker to annoy, frustrate or anger an Uber driver. Though so far I’ve only had one person try to smoke in the car – and no one else ask for permission and be denied – I’ve had plenty of people who have been standing on the kerb or footpath, and when they’ve spotted me coming down the street or when I’ve pulled up in front of them, they’ve dropped the cigarette they’d been smoking to the ground, usually put it out with their foot, then get in the car. Just like them spotting me triggers them to get rid of the cigarette, seeing them get rid of it gets me cringing at the thought of them getting in the car. Not only that, but its the only thing so far that has meant passengers have lost a star from their rating from me before they get in the car.

Though this shouldn’t surprise smokers, the smell stays with you and gets into the car next to you as though you were bringing a friend. It also shouldn’t surprise smokers that sometimes that “friend” sticks around in the car long after you’ve gotten out. Not only do I have to put up with the smell, but if it does stick around and can’t be overcome by putting the windows down to air out the car and turning the air freshener up to max to try and deal with it, then the next passenger also has to deal with the smell. I know if I got into an Uber that smelled of cigarette smoke, I’d make sure I rated the driver, and it wouldn’t be a “5”.

So if you get into my car smelling of cigarettes – or any other foul smell for that matter – assuming I’m not being instantly choked out and so cancel the ride on you, you’re guaranteed to get no higher than a 4-star rating. I know plenty of other drivers feel the same way too. Whereas you get the choice to rate the driver or not, drivers have to rate passengers at the end of every trip, and a smell hanging around helps to remind us to rate lower. Unless its bad enough to cancel the ride before it starts, you’re rating is going to drop if you stink of smoke.

Simple tip… Don’t smoke in the car, or just before you get in the car: you stink!