Safety the key as Austin City Council takes on ride-hailing rules

5:51 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015 Local

On one side, the Austin City Council has public safety officials and studies saying fingerprint-based background checks are the best bulwark against dangerous people giving paid rides to strangers.

On the other side, officials from Uber and Lyft argue that the availability of their drivers over the past 18 months has helped reduce drunken driving arrests in Austin. And those ride-hailing services say requiring their drivers to undergo fingerprint background checks would discourage applicants and hurt their business model — all but guaranteeing Uber and Lyft would leave Austin if the council requires such checks.

The council will weigh those competing safety interests Thursday evening as it takes up proposed changes to the ordinance governing transportation network companies, or TNCs.

“I am real uncomfortable feeling that I have to pick between those two things,” Mayor Steve Adler said at a council work session Tuesday. “As a practical matter, there’s a high risk that we will lose the two TNCs that are offering that service” if the fingerprint requirement passes.

Uber and Lyft currently run their own background checks on drivers, using information such as name, date of birth and Social Security number. They have argued that name-based checks are as comprehensive and safe for the public as those tied to fingerprints.

Get Me, a tiny startup competitor that entered the Austin ride-hailing market just this week, says it has no problem with fingerprint-based background checks.

Adler said he believes requiring potential drivers to be fingerprinted is necessary, but he signaled that the proposed ordinance could still be subject to tinkering.

“I think there are ways to get both of those, that there are ways to incentivize the behavior we want in our community,” Adler said. But he said he doesn’t support a model like the recent compromise in San Antonio, which makes the fingerprint check a voluntary step that provides drivers with an extra designation on the app.

A possible compromise surfaced late Wednesday: Under the latest version of the proposed ordinance posted online, transportation network companies would be able to slowly bring all of their drivers into compliance with the fingerprint requirement, getting to 25 percent of their drivers by May 1, 50 percent by Aug. 1 and 99 percent by Feb. 1, 2017.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the Mobility Committee, has argued the council is trying to create a “level playing field” between the city’s various ride-for-hire services: cabs, limos, shuttles and the private vehicles representing Uber and Lyft. City law currently is a patchwork in this area, with differing tests and standards for becoming a driver, including how long ago a disqualifying offense may have occurred and whether a potential driver can be forgiven those offenses if the applicant has completed a prison sentence or probationary period.

The council voted 9-2 in October to ask city staffers to craft specific ordinance language requiring fingerprint-based background checks for transportation network company drivers, with Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman opposed.

What the studies say

Both sides can point to studies.

The hole card for the fingerprint advocates is a 113-page May report by two City University of New York professors, called “One Standard for All.” It concludes that while name-based checks are useful for taxicab, limo, shuttle and transportation network company drivers, they should be supplemented by fingerprint identification to ensure that the people being checked are who they say they are.

“At the end of the day, you cannot conduct the most comprehensive background check possible if the information you have obtained has nothing to do with the person that is signing on to be with you as a driver,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon wrote in the report. “It is completely worthless.”

The fingerprint advocates also cite a 2006 U.S. Justice Department report, based on a Florida study, which found that with name-based checks 11.7 percent of those checked were billed as having no criminal history when in fact they did, and that 5.5 percent more were falsely shown to have committed crimes. Those so-called “false positives” can occur when people have common names and the records of another person are incorrectly tied to them.

However, ride-hailing representatives point out that that Florida study occurred in 1998, when the Internet was still relatively young. They argue that database checks are far more comprehensive and accurate now.

And they point to a widely accepted statistic that about half of the 40 million criminal fingerprint records on file with the FBI don’t include what happened with the cases after the arrest that led to the fingerprinting. Critics argue that means many people are tabbed as having a criminal record when in fact the arrest led to a dismissal of the case or an acquittal.

“A fingerprinting search does not catch that,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said. “The background check that we conduct is tied to final dispositions of cases.”

No system is perfect

Both sides acknowledge that no background check is perfect, and that some small percentage of people with criminal backgrounds nonetheless end up behind the wheel of both cabs and transportation network company vehicles.

In Austin, according to Police Department records, in 2015 there have been three reports of sexual assaults by cab drivers, five by Uber drivers and two by Lyft drivers. All of those cases are still under investigation, and none have yet led to arrests, said Sgt. Martina St. Louis with the Austin Police Department’s adult sex crimes unit.

As for the effect ride-hailing services are having on drinking and driving in Austin, the results have been mixed since Uber and Lyft began service here in June 2014, initially in defiance of city law.

Comparing the 12 months after that debut with the comparable months in 2013 and 2014, arrests for driving while intoxicated declined 5.4 percent to 5,947, or about 1 fewer such arrest per day. However, DWI arrests had also declined the 12 months previous to that, albeit by the lesser amount of 2.4 percent.

The number of DWI-related collisions declined 24 percent in 2014 (when Lyft and Uber were operating for seven of the 12 months) from 2013. However, comparing the first 10 months of 2015 to the same 10 months in 2014, DWI collisions increased by 6 percent, from 422 to 445.

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