An Uber sign is displayed inside a car in Palatine, Illinois, in February. Credit: Nam Y. Huh / AP

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

A woman who accused her Uber driver of sexually assaulting her in Bangor in early June gave the region its first exposure to a problem the ride-hailing giant has faced nationally — and been sued over — in recent years. 

Joseph Graston, 28, of Milo was arrested Wednesday and charged with gross sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact, according to Detective Lt. Brent Beaulieu of the Bangor Police Department. 

The survivor was “celebrating a life event” at a Bangor nightclub in early June and had become intoxicated, Beaulieu said Wednesday. She took an Uber home, and the next morning contacted Bangor police to report that she believed that she had been raped.

Graston is being held without bail at the Penobscot County Jail. He will appear in court on Friday. 

“This rider’s experience is truly terrifying, and we are appalled by the driver’s described conduct. We banned him from the Uber platform as soon as this was reported to us,” an Uber spokesperson said Wednesday. “Sexual assault is a devastating crime, and although no industry is immune from these issues, we remain committed to supporting victims and helping address sexual violence by collaborating with experts, pioneering safety tech solutions and focusing on transparency and accountability.” 

Though this is the first reported case of an Uber driver sexually assaulting a customer in Bangor, according to police, thousands of the ride-hailing app’s drivers and passengers have reported being sexually assaulted or raped over the past several years, according to safety reports the company began publishing in 2019. 

Uber received 3,824 reports across five categories of sexual assault, ranging from nonconsensual kissing of a non-sexual body part to rape in 2019 and 2020, according to the company’s latest safety report released this summer. Some 388 of those cases were rape. 

In those 3,824 sexual assault reports, riders were the accused party 43 percent of the time, and drivers were accused 56 percent of the time, the company reported. 

The latest data marked a stark decrease from the nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assaults in 2017 and 2018, according to the company’s first safety report, which covered those years.

The total number of Uber rides that took place, however, dropped from 2.3 billion in 2017 and 2018 to 2.1 billion in 2019 and 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the company’s safety reports. 

The continued accusations that Uber drivers had sexually assaulted passengers prompted a civil lawsuit against Uber in San Francisco County Superior Court in July, alleging that female Uber riders in multiple states had been kidnapped, sexually assaulted, raped, stalked or harassed by drivers for the service. The law firm behind the suit, Slater Slater Schulman LLP, said it had 550 clients with claims against Uber, with at least 150 more being actively investigated. 

The law firm said in July that Uber’s response had been “slow and inadequate, with horrific consequences.”

“To prevent these horrific assaults, Uber needs to become a truly safety-oriented company,” lawyer Adam Slater said. “But, since its inception, the company has prioritized growth over rider safety. While the company has publicly taken some steps to address these issues, safety is still not the number one priority.”

Slater said Uber could add cameras to vehicles, perform more robust background checks on drivers and create a warning system when drivers don’t stay on a path to a destination. 

A criminal background check for Graston, the Uber driver in Bangor, turned up no Maine criminal history.

“Acknowledging the problem through safety reports is not enough,” Slater wrote in July when the lawsuit was announced. “It is well past time for Uber to take concrete actions to protect its customers.” 

In addition to publishing its first safety report, Uber in 2019 rolled out sexual misconduct education for drivers. 

The company also added a feature that, using GPS, detects if a trip goes off-course or if a possible crash has occurred, then provides riders and drivers with resources they may need to get help. 

In 2020, Uber launched an on-trip reporting feature in its app, which allows riders to discreetly report a non-emergency safety concern while still on the trip, according to a statement from the company.

The company stressed, however, that riders should call 911 if they need immediate help, which they can do through the same safety feature in the Uber app. 

In its most recent safety report, Uber said it’s working to improve safety for its drivers and riders by implementing screening processes for drivers, adding new safety features for passengers, and “investing in providing riders and drivers with support in times of need.” 

Lyft, another nationwide ride-hailing company, published a similar safety report in 2021 that revealed 1,807 people reported being sexually assaulted during a ride in 2019, an increase from the 1,100 reported sexual assaults the platform received in 2017. 

Earlier this month, 11 Lyft passengers and two drivers filed lawsuits against the company in San Francisco Superior Court. The passengers and drivers allege they were sexually assaulted while riding or driving for Lyft and claim the company failed to protect them. 

To combat assaults and other safety concerns, Lyft said it conducts background checks before hiring drivers, then continuously monitors drivers’ criminal and driving records. The company also developed in-app safety features that allow riders and drivers to share their location with others and access emergency assistance. 

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...