The rising safety issues that could throttle Uber

Is Uber the best thing to happen to the transportation industry since the internal combustion engine? Or is it the equivalent of the Corvair: seemingly groundbreaking, but hiding danger beneath its hood?

Questions about Uber's operations and passenger safety are rising as serious accusations involving its drivers continue to mount. In a recent incident, a woman in New Delhi accused one of Uber's drivers of raping her. In response, the Indian capital banned the taxi-booking service, while the company itself took the (apparently redundant) step of suspending its operations in the city.

The case in New Delhi apparently isn't an aberration, considering that several others have emerged involving sexual assault, kidnapping and sexual harassment.

In Chicago, one passenger accused an Uber driver of sexually assaulting her last month, while earlier this year another Uber driver was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping a drunk passenger and taking her to a hotel with the purpose of sexual assault. In London, a woman alleges an Uber driver sexually harassed her and asked her to perform oral sex.

To be sure, taxi drivers have also been involved in criminal activities against their passengers. But the high-profile cases for Uber come at a time when it's battling a pushback from some government officials and critics who contend it doesn't do enough to protect consumers.

Portland, Oregon, for one, is suing Uber, alleging illegal operations after it debuted its ride-sharing service there despite the city's protests that the company fails to meet requirements for consumer protections and safety.

Uber didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from CBS MoneyWatch.

While Uber has legions of fans, its operations are coming under increasing scrutiny for what the company doesn't offer. That includes the same type of insurance coverage as traditional taxi operators. Another complaint is possible misuse of personal information. On top of that, some are criticizing what they see as the company's ham-fisted response to allegations of sexual assaults by some of its drivers.

So, how does Uber manage to operate without having the same type of safety requirements as taxi companies? Uber isn't a taxi company, but a technology company that operates an app for connecting consumers with drivers. The app allows customers to track the location of their reserved car while they wait for pick-up, something many customers like. In essence, the service is a matchmaker for passengers and drivers.

But the downside includes unclear insurance coverage. Uber requires drivers to buy their own commercial car insurance, and it provides $1 million of liability coverage per incident.

While that may sound good, Uber's coverage has some gray areas. For instance, an Uber driver in San Francisco struck and killed a 6-year-old on New Year's Eve 2013, but the $1 million insurance coverage didn't kick in because the driver didn't have an Uber fare at the time of the accident. Uber later amended its policy to cover the so-called "insurance gap."

Questions have also been raised about Uber's background checks on drivers. District attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles earlier this month filed a lawsuit against Uber, alleging it misleads consumers about the safety of the service.

Because it doesn't fingerprint drivers, the background checks are "completely worthless," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The company repeats this misleading statement, giving consumers a false sense of security when deciding whether to get into a stranger's car."

That's increasingly raising concerns among women, especially given the recent cases involving sexual harassment and assault, and what some see as an inadequate response from Uber.

Take the case of the London woman who said an Uber driver sexually harassed her. In that case, Uber responded by apologizing for the "intrusive experience," which the woman felt was insufficient, according to Newsweek. After complaining about the incident a second time, Uber offered a $31 credit.

On top of these incidents, the company recently apologized for a senior executive's suggestion that Uber should dig up dirt on journalists who are critical of the company.

Such incidents are prompting some customers to swear off on the service.

"This company to which I'm shelling out heaps of cash every weekend doesn't actually care to take as many precautions as it can to ensure that its passengers aren't sexually assaulted?" wrote Eve Andrews at the Grist, about her decision to stop using the service. "Ah, well. Yeah, I just can't do this anymore."