Austin council OKs fingerprint requirement for ride-hailing drivers

Defying implied threats that such a vote would chase Uber and Lyft out of town, the Austin City Council late Thursday put into city statutes mandatory fingerprint-based background checks for ride-hailing drivers.

But the move will not immediately empty the streets of transportation network company drivers. The ordinance, approved on a 9-2 vote with Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman opposed, would not take effect until Feb. 1, and it phases in the fingerprint requirement in four steps. The companies, subject to further action by the council, would not have to do the checks on any of their drivers until well into the spring.

Still to come, perhaps as soon as late January, yet another transportation network ordinance that would outline what council members call “incentives” and “disincentives” to encourage the companies and their thousands of drivers to undergo the fingerprint checks.

What might those perks and penalties look like? Adler suggested both more money per ride for drivers who are fingerprinted, or offering them better locations for pickups at big events like the ACL and South-by-Southwest festivals. The specifics would be crafted as part of a separate ordinance the council hopes to pass in late January.

“This is taking an aspect of what is happening in San Antonio” where drivers can volunteer to be fingerprinted and shown as such on apps, Adler said, “and trying to put it on steroids.”

The council vote also made other changes in an “interim” city law for ride-hailing companies first approved in October 2014 after Uber and Lyft had been operating in Austin illegally more than four months. The ordinance includes a fee for TNC companies of 1 percent of their annual revenue, prohibits drivers from dropping off and picking up passengers in travel lanes, ramps up reporting requirements for the companies, instructs the companies to cooperate with city officials in using “geofencing” for pickup and dropoff spots during large events like the ACL Festival, and requires TNC vehicles to feature “trade dress” like the neon pink mustaches already seen on many Lyft cars.

The eleventh-hour revisions came amid mounting political pressure from supporters of Uber and Lyft, who have said requiring fingerprint checks would make it more difficult to sign up drivers, threatening the companies’ business model.

Among those supporting Uber and Lyft: Sheriff Greg Hamilton, who issued a statement this week urging the council not to adopt any “onerous regulations” that would imperil the companies, which he credited with helping reduce drunken driving arrests by providing readily available rides. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, testifying to the council Thursday, said that fingerprint-based checks are valuable, but that his greatest fear is losing the TNC choice for inebriated people who might have wrecks or fall victims to assaults.

“The worst thing that could happen would be to lose 10,000 options,” Acevedo said.

Even with the changes announced at the council’s midday press conference, however, a copy of the latest draft of the transportation network company ordinance still said: “A person must pass a driver history check and a fingerprint-based criminal background check under the provisions of this section to be eligible to drive for a TNC.”

“This is a mandatory fingerprint requirement, and I don’t think anything is changed,” Troxclair said. She said she had only just heard of the proposed law’s evolving incentive/disincentive angle, and that the council should take more time to consider the change.

A motion to pass the ordinance only on a preliminary, first-reading basis was defeated 8-3, with Council Member Ora Houston joining Zimmerman and Troxclair on the losing side.

Under the ordinance, transportation network companies will have four benchmark dates to have fingerprint checks of certain percentages of driver-hours or driver-miles: 25 percent by May 1, 50 percent by Aug. 1, 85 percent by Dec. 1 and 99 percent by Feb. 1. That would appear to give Lyft and Uber a grace period of more than five months before any of the drivers would have to go through the process.

Both companies have issued thinly veiled threats to cease Austin operations if the fingerprint requirement becomes law.

Under the earlier city ordinance, Uber and Lyft have been able to conduct the name-based criminal background checks that they prefer. They say that process, which requires little more from the driver other than providing a name, Social Security number, driver’s license and a few other pieces of information, maximizes the number of drivers and thus available cars on the street. (Lyft also conducts an in-person interview.)

The changes announced Thursday met with poor reviews from the companies.

“We haven’t had time to fully examine the details,” Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said in an email Thursday afternoon, “but it appears the only substantive change is the implementation date is now after the next election. Similar to earlier proposals, these rules reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how drivers use ridesharing platforms and the safety features inherent in our app.”

A third player in the market, Get Me, began providing rides Tuesday in Austin and has just 60 drivers at this point, the company said. Get Me officials have told Council Member Ann Kitchen that they will comply with fingerprint requirements.

Adler said at the news conference he doesn’t expect “any of the TNCs to leave town after what we do today.”

Kitchen and Council Members Delia Garza and Sheri Gallo appeared with Adler at Thursday’s press conference. Kitchen recounted police and women’s shelter reports of sexual assaults by drivers with ride-hailing services. While a fingerprint check won’t screen out all those with ill intent — sexual assault complaints have also been filed against three taxi drivers in Austin this year — having such a check will detect more prospective drivers with a criminal history, Kitchen said.

“Austinites should not have to risk sacrificing their safety in order to get a ride home,” Kitchen said.

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