Wear: Austin screening of taxi drivers far from airtight as well

Pardon me while I venture out on some thin ice.

Throughout these months of rancorous debate over whether drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft should be fingerprinted, the fact that Austin cab, shuttle and limo drivers have to be printed and undergo criminal background checks has been presented as much safer for the riding public. Those folks’ past, the story has seemed to be, has been subject to strict, comprehensive scrutiny.

It is not necessarily so.

Under city law, the background check done with those fingerprints, which is conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety, looks primarily at arrests and convictions that occurred in Texas, not nationwide. Only in cases where potential drivers have lived in Texas less than three years are they required to obtain a similar check in their previous state.

But even in that second case, any sordid events that might have occurred in 48 other states are left unexamined.

And then there’s the rest of the world. If someone immigrates to the United States and then applies to drive here in Austin, city law requires no probe into their history beyond U.S. borders. Yes, they must have a work visa to get a chauffeur’s permit, city officials told me, and presumably that means the federal government probably took a hard look at their past. But that information, whatever it might be, is certainly not available to anyone at City Hall, or to the cab companies.

But that’s not all. City law allows those convicted of 15 significant crimes to apply for an Austin chauffeur’s license — and thus be eligible to apply to drive a cab, shuttle or limo — as long as they served their time in jail or prison, have maintained employment since getting out and have paid any fines or restitution ordered by a court. Among the crimes on that list that are eligible for official forgiveness: homicide, theft, car theft, driving while intoxicated and, to what will likely be the surprise of many, sexual assault.

“Wow,” was the initial response of Kelly White, the president and CEO of the SAFE Alliance, when I told her about this. The Alliance runs SafePlace, which provides help and shelter to women who have been attacked.

I followed up Friday with Carlton Thomas, the city parking operations division manager and overseer of the chauffeur permit operation. Yes, he said, city law allows people who have committed those serious crimes to apply for a permit. But another provision of the city code gives him and his staff the authorization to “conduct investigations of the character, ground transportation experience and qualifications of each applicant to determine whether an applicant appears fit and qualified” for a chauffeur’s permit.

Thomas can say no, in other words, and does.

“Yes, we have denied applicants who have had certain convictions on their record,” he said. Which convictions? Thomas declined to be more specific. “It’s very individual.”

But some of the almost 3,200 people with Austin chauffeur’s permits were granted driving permits with blotches on their criminal records, he said. And, yes, he acknowledged, the city in many cases does not know what crimes successful applicants might have committed in Florida, or Alaska, or France, or Pakistan. Ed Kargbo, head of Yellow Cab in Austin, told me that something like 40 percent of his drivers migrated to the U.S., although he emphasized that most of them have been in the country for several years.

But there are holes in the city safety net, even with fingerprinting.

Lyft and Uber, of course, have holes as well. As fingerprinting advocates have pointed out over and over these past few months, the security companies that contract to do background checks for the ride-hailing companies cannot be absolutely sure that the name they’re checking in public databases and courthouses is in fact the human being looking to drive for Uber or Lyft. Driver’s licenses and Social Security cards can be forged.

While the two companies use background checks that look at all 50 states, and they bar any applicants with crimes of violence or theft, those background checks only look back seven years. So someone could have committed a rape or even a homicide 10 or 20 years ago, even in Texas, and the ride-hailing companies likely would not find out about it. That’s a gaping hole.

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who has been pushing for months for the city to require fingerprint-based background checks of ride-hailing drivers, acknowledged to me last week that the Texas-only check provision and the “re-entry” section of city law need to be changed.

She pointed out that ride-hailing law passed by the council in December — which could be wiped off the books May 7 if voters approve an alternative ordinance backed by Uber, Lyft and a massive petition drive — mandated that checks be national in scope. And it contemplated passage of a separate ordinance that would bar potential drivers convicted of “certain offenses.” Kitchen pointed to homicide and sexual assault as likely candidates for such a list.

But what about those who drive taxis, shuttles, limos and chartered vehicles? Yes, that ordinance-to-come-sometime would cover all such drivers for hire, she said, not just those contracting with ride-hailing companies. But, to be clear, this hasn’t occurred yet.

What this all means is that whether you take an Uber or Lyft, or a taxi, or an airport shuttle, you are getting into the vehicle with a stranger whose background has been gone over with a broad-toothed comb. Both systems have significant deficiencies, and the fact that at least 10 Austin women filed complaints last year about sexual assaults seven against ride-hailing drivers, three involving taxis demonstrates this sad fact.

The upshot: Rider beware, or at least, rider be smart.

“Right now, there isn’t any panacea,” White said. While emphasizing that in no way is she blaming the victims, she said that what her nurses at SafePlace have seen is a pattern of those reporting assaults in ride-for-hire vehicles.

“It is very consistent: young women, alone at night, under the influence,” she said. “What we need to do is to teach everyone. Just like you don’t let your friend drive drunk, don’t let your friend get in the car with a stranger when she is not fully aware of what is going on around her. Not any car.”

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