Congress Presses Uber And Lyft On Driver Background Checks

Ride-sharing companies are not strangers to Congressional inquiries. This week a group of Congressional Democrats hit the CEOs of Uber, Sidecar and Lyft with another letter, this time demanding the companies conduct more comprehensive background checks on their drivers to better protect customers from sexual assaults.

Although these companies conduct internal screenings, the cohort of lawmakers do not believe they go far enough. The representatives called on the companies to adopt fingerprint-based background checks for drivers, both new and existing. The representatives believe a change to the policy is needed following the alleged string of sexual assaults by ride-share drivers in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Representatives from Uber, Lyft and Sidecar all countered that their companies’ screening processes were actually more safe than those of existing transportation options.

“Safety improvements are one of the main reasons that consumers are choosing Lyft. In addition to using independent experts to screen potential drivers, Lyft also provides consumers with in-app photos of drivers and vehicles, real-time ride tracking, digital receipts, two-way rating systems, and an around-the-clock Trust and Safety team,” Lyft wrote in a statement. “The benefits for passengers are clear.”

The Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents these companies in Washington, also expressed the same sentiment.

“Safety is a top priority for ride-sharing platforms and is built into the service,” said Noah Theran, the association’s spokesman. “Ride-sharing platforms conduct extensive background checks and also feature end-to-end GPS tracking of rides along with a two-way ratings system that provides safety and accountability to both riders and drivers.”

CALinnovates, a group that has been an active participant in the ride-sharing discussion, said that the number of signees of the letter (8) “proves how little support this letter received from Congress and fails to account for the innovations in transparency and accountability brought forth by the app-driven economy.” CALinnovates’ Mike Montgomery says in a statement that the letter is a “political favor for an entrenched industry” and that the “fingerprint issue isn’t a silver bullet, it’s a red herring.”

It’s fair to say that the ride-share systems enable riders to give feedback in real time in a way that wasn’t possible when they were riding in cabs. But the issue at stake is about preventing a driver with a criminal record from ever picking a rider up, not allowing a rider to give negative feedback once he or she has had a bad experience.

Uber also said its system brought “unprecedented accountability and transparency” to the industry. Both Uber and Sidecar cited multilayered background searches they believe are more extensive than criminal background checks with a fingerprint.

But even with these extensive background checks, the suggestion made by members of Congress would prevent potential drivers from using false identities or aliases in these screenings. A biometric identifier is stronger than searching a name.

Uber itself was recently caught in hail storm of controversy after one of its executives floated the idea of doing opposition research into journalists that were critical of its operations.

Following the incident, members of Congress have sent inquiries to ride-share companies regarding customer data, particularly related to tools that allow Uber employees to view passengers’ ride routes.

This is also not the first time Uber has come under fire for failing to adequately screen drivers. The company introduced new screening processes in India following the rape of a woman by a driver who had previously been convicted of sexual assault. The company also introduced a panic button for riders in the country.

But in the United States, progress has been slower.

In related news, a state bill in California has been proposed that would increase the depth of background checks that ride-sharing drivers undergo. The proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 24, would require ride-share drivers to take part in what an official summary called a “DOJ finger print background check [sic].”

The California proposal underscores the point that, while Uber, Lyft and Sidecar have done a quick job at muscling their way into markets that have strong incumbent taxi lobbies, there remains a number of questions regarding their collective business model. Certainly, no service that puts its end users at risk can maintain the situation without change.

Uber and Lyft and Sidecar would certainly like to control the eventual settling of the situation in-house, but given government interest at every level, they may not get the chance.

The missive from the Congressional leaders is just a letter. It gives Uber, Sidecar and Lyft the opportunity to get ahead of this before they fall into yet another public relations crisis for not ensuring the safety of their riders.

Also such a shift seems to be in their best interests commercially. For riders, especially female riders like me (Cat Zakrzewski), the practice could add an extra sense of security when using these apps. Usually, taking an Uber or Lyft at night seems like the responsible and safe way to get home, but most of my friends and I can think of times when drivers have said things that have made us uncomfortable. Uber drivers have catcalled me as I exited their cars, and one who showed me an article in the newspaper about an Uber sexual assault in my city and told me to be careful. Knowing that extra precautions have been taken in hiring these drivers would make me feel much better about taking one of these services home.

If they don’t act, it’s possible that we could soon see these CEOs in front of a Congressional committee.