Is That Pepper Spray?

Is That Pepper Spray?

The Threat of Pepper Spray Can Be as Good as Using it

I have never needed to use pepper spray, and hope I never will. However, it's always accessible, in the little compartment of my car door, within easy reach. When the crazies come out at night, when the drunkards need a ride somewhere, when the wasted folk decide it's time to call it a night, it's comforting to know it's there.

I started carrying pepper spray after reading about the assault by a Taco Bell executive on an Uber driver in Newport Beach. For those who didn't hear about it, an intoxicated rider violently attacked a driver after being asked to leave the car. The driver managed to pepper the passenger, and the man was arrested and terminated from his job the following day. The entire incident went viral on YouTube. Watch the video here. The scene is disturbing, and represents the inherent danger drivers face when picking up passengers who are drinking.

Most trips at night are benign and relatively predictable. On Fridays, you get the end of the week trifecta: airport, dinner and cocktails. Assuming a driver lives in San Jose, longer trips early in the evening are desirable, preferably to SFO airport or San Francisco. The "City" is bustling and there is more money available there. On the other hand, you don't want to venture too far later in the evening, as the likelihood of getting a ride back is minimal.

Despite your best efforts, you often find yourself in far away places as the clock approaches midnight. Here is an excerpt from my upcoming book that describes the experience:

Evenings bring out people looking to have a good time, and many of these riders are gregarious and talkative. The night also brings out the working class, undesirables, and the professional partiers.

However, if you drive till last call or later, which I did for almost a year, you cannot help but see the seedy side of the city and the creatures that thrive in this urban environment. Suffice it to say, the nocturnal crowd is usually a bit more colorful.

Colorful can be fun. I once was "forced" to sing along with a couple to a song on the radio. Read my post, Sweet Music to my EarsIt can also be a pejorative word, due to the different types of passengers you transport compared to daytime. I have had a working girl negotiate a deal with her prospective customer, a schizophrenic who had a conversation with 4 distinctly different voices, drugged-out men who refused to exit my car when the ride ended, and a crackhead chase me down the freeway at high-speed, just to name a few. I will cover some of these stories in future blogs, so please subscribe in the popup form on this page and join the community.

What does this all mean? Due to pure numbers, there is an implied risk you assume as a rideshare driver at night. If you drive a hundred or a thousand passengers, a few will be trouble. Alcohol is often involved, but not always. Other vehicles pose a danger. However, the threat can also come from inside your car, especially your back seat. While giving a ride in San Francisco one weekend night, I discovered just how vulnerable drivers are. 

It was Friday night, around 11:30 pm, and I had "crept" from San Jose to San Francisco. "Creeping" is not an official term. It's a word I use when rides take me sporadically from San Jose to a far away destination, usually North towards San Francisco (the City). The pattern is San Jose to Mountain View, Mountain View to Palo Alto, Palo Alto to SFO, and SFO into the City. This happens at least once a week, and occasionally more depending on current events.

When I pulled up to Greg, he had his face in his hands. He was late-twenties or early thirties, dressed in black jeans and a white shirt, right for a night out in the city. My Initial assumption was he was crying, possibly a recent fight or breakup with his partner. I am a compassionate guy and have consoled many riders who entered my car distressed or upset. Offering him a sympathetic greeting I said, "Hey Greg, are you ok? Can I help you with anything?"

He did not greet me or acknowledge my concern. Silence is awkward in a hybrid car, as there is often no motor running. Conversation heightened, and the lack of it exaggerated. Figuring he didn't want to chat, I left him alone, and started his twelve-minute trip. That is when the ride became creepy.

A couple of minutes into the trip, a low, cryptic laugh came from the back seat. This wasn't just a snicker. It was an evil sound usually associated with creatures in the movies, and made me instantly nervous. I get unusual noises from my inebriated guests when driving, but they tend to fall into the indistinguishable slurring category. The noise behind me made me realize something was not quite right.

When a passenger gets into your rear seat at night, they are a dark figure. Only the outline of their head is visible, their facial features hidden. Your focus is on the road, and you can't see what they are doing.

I chose to ignore the spooky laugh and continued driving. What happened next was unnerving. I received a text from the owner of the Uber account, the ride in progress. The assumption was that this was Greg's account, that he had booked the ride.

The text read:

"You picked up the wrong person. The guy you picked up was waving his hands and has a knife."

Instead, I had someone else in my back seat, despite having confirmed "Greg's" name when he first got into the car. This happens occasionally, if an account holder secures a ride for another passenger, such as a spouse or friend. However, I usually receive a message from the owner explaining the situation.


The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was instantly alert, and turned sideways to see my passenger. Greg did not notice the message, so I aggressively started talking to him in a voice louder than normal. "Hey buddy, how are you feeling? Talk to me." There was no answer.

"Hey! If you don't answer me, you need to get out of my car!" I said in an impatient voice. My left hand was on my door, and I was ready for a quick, parkour-style exit if needed. There was still no answer from my passenger. Not wasting any time, I reached to my side-door compartment and slowly grabbed my pepper spray.

Amazingly, in his condition, Greg saw my movement from the back seat. He instantly perked up, and quickly asked, "What was that?"

"Precaution," I said, in the sternest voice I could muster considering the circumstances.

"That's pepper spray, isn't it?" Greg asked in a concerned tone.

"Yes, and I will use it in a second if I have to!" I said assertively.

"No, no, no! I am just wasted and heading home," Greg pleaded. "My girlfriend's going to totally kill me!"

I should have opted for the safe alternative, which would have been to stop the ride, jump out of my car with the pepper spray, tell Greg to immediately get out, and report the ride to Uber.

Yet I still had the passenger in my car and felt I had to take control of this escalating situation. Greg's destination was only a couple of minutes away. Sometimes in pressure situations, you make quick decisions. Whether it was instinct or stupidity, I had made up my mind.

"What's the address we are going to?" I asked after covering my phone with my hand.

Greg easily confirmed the correct address.

"Sit there, don't move, or I use this!" I aggressively said, holding the pepper spray canister in the air. By this time, I could see his apartment only a few blocks away.

So I continued to drive with my left hand on the wheel, right hand on the pepper spray, half-turned in my seat, one eye on the road, and one eye on Greg.

It was the longest 2 minutes of my life.

We pulled up to his place. Greg apologized profusely, thanked me for the ride, and quickly got out of my car. I let out a huge sigh and put my head on the steering wheel.

A traumatic situation like this makes you analyze what you could have done differently. In retrospect, I am not sure I chose the safest option. I turned off my Uber app and drove the long ride home to San Jose in silence.

In the end, Greg did nothing wrong. His behavior was a little strange, that's all. What likely happened was some friends were partying. Greg was too intoxicated, and one of his buddies ordered a driver to get him home. Much to my chagrin, the remaining group then decided it would be funny to play a joke on his driver.

It was not funny. The prank could have been dangerous for both Greg and me.

I will never know what really happened. Because of this ride and several others, I no longer pick up riders after midnight. It is just not worth the extra money, in the slight chance the implied risk becomes real. 

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Did you like this story? Please read: Soccer, Scotland and a Few Beers. 

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