‘It’s getting bad’: Okaloosa parents are sending Ubers to pick up kids from school. But drivers must refuse
Northwest Florida Daily News | By Savannah Evanoff | January 19, 2022
FORT WALTON BEACH — Paula Johnson, an Uber driver, remembers pulling up one day to Bruner Middle School to pick up her rider.
She hoped it was a teacher or faculty member who had car problems, but instead it was a 16-year-old boy from Bruner and his 5-year-old brother from Elliott Point Elementary School. Through the app, the rider had check-marked the box agreeing he or she was 18 years old.
“I was supposed to pick the two of them up, a 16-year-old and a 5-year-old, without a parent,” Johnson said. “I refused that trip, and I had to drive off and look in my rearview mirror and hope to heck that these kids find a way home or they’re able to call their family.”
Uber’s Community Guidelines prohibit Johnson from giving rides to people younger than 18. Refusing or canceling trips because of that policy does not impact the driver’s rating or account status.
“When used according to our guidelines, Uber can be an important resource for families, but it’s important to remember that minors must be accompanied by an adult,” an Uber spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Northwest Florida Daily News. “Adults with rider accounts should not request trips for underage individuals, and drivers should cancel trips requested by unaccompanied minors and report it to Uber.
“Uber has previously provided guidance to drivers about underage riders, advising drivers to ask for an ID if a rider looks young and decline the trip if they are younger than 18,” the statement continued. “Drivers are asked to report situations in which a rider is underage to Uber for further review/investigation by our 24/7 customer support team.”
Uber also collaborated with the National Parent Teacher Association on a “Car Seat to College” campaign to educate families on Uber safety. A blog was posted in September 2020 to promote that message.
In her four years of driving for Uber, Johnson has been requested numerous times to pick up minors, sometimes from businesses such as Planet Fitness but mostly from schools in Okaloosa County. Among those she remembers are Bruner, Choctawhatchee High School and Fort Walton Beach High School.
The Okaloosa County School District submitted the following statement in response to the issue.
“This is not a practice that the School District encourages, and it is not part of regular school transportation. We do realize there may be unusual or emergency situations that arise in which the parent makes a request of this type. In those cases, we will work with the parent to accommodate the selected method of transportation.”
Niceville High School Principal Charlie Marello also has seen how apps have changed the dynamic for high school students. He acknowledged it in a tweet in December.
“Eagle students — STOP ordering Door Dash or other food deliveries to the school immediately. We will reject the delivery OR we will eat your food in the front office. Door Dash…seriously?!?!?!”
Johnson never knows who she is picking up; all she has is a name. She thinks picking up students younger than 18 is not only unsafe but also impractical.
“The school is pouring out of kids and they expect you to find your kid,” Johnson said. “Wait a minute, it’s a kid. No, I’m not picking them up. But Choctawhatchee (High School) has done it, and what they do now is they come across the street to the Dollar Store and they try to get picked up over there.”
“It’s getting bad. More and more parents are getting on board to request an Uber to go pick up their kids. …They always say, ‘But my mom called.’ I don’t care if God called. ‘You are not getting in my car. You’re too young, sweetie.’ You get tired of explaining it.UBER DRIVER PAULA JOHNSON
Johnson has learned not to accept trips when the location is a local school.
“I would send a message to the rider or the requester and ask, ‘What is the age of the rider I’m picking up?’ And they would answer that, 11,” Johnson said. “Can’t do that. No sooner would I cancel the trip, they’d just get right back on and request another Uber.”
Either the parents are sending an Uber or the students have downloaded the app and are requesting a ride, she said.
“It’s getting bad,” Johnson added. “More and more parents are getting on board to request an Uber to go pick up their kids. … They always say, ‘But my mom called.’ I don’t care if God called. ‘You’re not getting in my car. You’re too young, sweetie.’ You get tired of explaining it.”
Johnson believes other drivers accept children as riders.
“I hear it all the time, ‘Well, other Uber drivers do,’” she said. “‘Well, that’s them.’ And I don’t think these kids are lying. That’s why it has to be the school to pick up the slack on this end. Because once they decide to put that child in their car, they have taken sole responsibility of that child.”