Sitting there in a cramped Capitol hearing room last week, I experienced a feeling of deja phooey.
As I listened (twice!) to debate over a proposed ride-hailing law — and fingerprints, drunken driving, sexual assault, apps, innovation, local control, Uber and Lyft — the whole thing had a dispiriting familiarity. The cast of characters was recognizable too.
There were Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen and Mayor Steve Adler for the (city) defense; the preternaturally composed Lyft executive April Mims; folks from Houston city government; law enforcement trying to thread the needle between endorsing fingerprinting but not chasing off the biggest ride-hailing companies; Mothers Against Drunk Driving standing up for ride-hailing’s purportedly magical effect on drinking and driving; state Sen. Charles Schwertner and state Rep. Chris Paddie speaking for Uber.
Oops. I mean, speaking for the concept of reasonable and consistent statewide regulation of a highly portable service, which allows users to summon a driver-for-hire using a smartphone app. Pay no attention to those 40 Uber and Lyft lobbyists over there behind the curtain. Or, in this case, the back of the hearing room.
One way or the other, I’ve been listening to all this for three years and, through me and other reporters, so have you. It’s hard not to think: Hey, just decide it, already.
In case you missed it, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee on Tuesday had hearings on Senate Bill 176 from Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican, Senate Bill 361 from state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Senate Bill 113 by state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. Then, on Thursday, the House Transportation Committee heard testimony on House Bill 100 by Paddie, R-Marshall. There are notable differences among the bills, but what they all have in common is that cities would be banned from regulating ride-hailing services and the state would be in charge instead.
You’ll notice the “R” attached to all those names. Somehow ride-hailing services, which began in deep blue San Francisco and was birthed in Austin by the very liberal former Council Member Chris Riley, have now become a partisan issue with Democrats mostly on the “no” side.
Both committees left the bills pending. But there’s a very good chance that both of them will eventually send bills on to the floors of their respective chambers. And if it stays partisan, well, the Republicans control both chambers and the governor’s office. So if you’re part of the 56 percent of Austin voters who in May stood by Austin’s ordinance and rejected an alternative from Uber and Lyft, you might have to adjust your expectations.
As I said, the legislation’s supporters pulled out the old drunken driving saw. What we were told back in 2014, when Uber and Lyft were first here and operating in defiance of city officials, opposing them was akin to sanctioning death behind the wheel. The early statistics on driving while intoxicated in Austin after the companies came to town in June 2014 — the council legalized them that October with an ordinance they liked — showed that arrests had fallen a bit.
But during that first year, the council began to hear from advocates for battered women that they had gotten about 10 complaints of assaults on young women by Uber or Lyft drivers. Similar reports were coming in from around the country as well. So in the fall of 2015, the council opened the issue back up. In December 2015, after several long hearings and debates, they passed a bill requiring fingerprinting of drivers for criminal background checks.
You know what happened next: Uber and Lyft petitioned to force an election on an alternative ordinance without fingerprinting, letting the companies do the name-based background checks they prefer. They lost. They left. Other ride-hailing companies came in, agreeing to abide by the fingerprinting requirement.
So, what effect has Uber’s and Lyft’s departure had on drunken driving arrests? Are these new, supposedly lesser ride-hailing companies doing as good a job of keeping wasted college kids from getting behind the wheel?
From May through December 2016, what you might call the RideAustin-Fare-Fasten-GetMe period, Austin police arrested 3,756 people for DWI. In the same eight-month period of 2015, under the Uber-Lyft regime, there were 3,841 such arrests. So, a 2.2 percent drop under the upstarts.
Compare this with the same eight months in 2013, before we had any sort of ride-hailing service: 4,130 arrests. So we had 9 percent fewer arrests in the last two-thirds of 2016.
This is somewhat squishy business, of course. The sample size is low. And the number of people arrested on any given offense might represent police effort in that area as much as it does actual people offending. But, by this admittedly flawed metric, the substitute teachers appear to be maintaining order in the class.
As for sexual assault, who knows? The city officials and the advocates have gone pretty silent on this. Even during the heart of the debate in early 2016, all that was out there were complaints. Police had arrested no one in connection with the incidents, much less convicted them. So we don’t know.
The argument for fingerprinting was always that some drivers with criminal records and proclivities could pass through the Uber and Lyft name check, and then hurt someone. With fingerprinting, the argument goes, you know that the person whose records you’re checking is that actual person rather than someone using an alias.
Schwertner and other advocates of the statewide law — and thus of letting companies do only the name-based checks — argue that the market could decide if fingerprinting is something that really matters to the customers. San Antonio tried a weak version of this, letting drivers voluntarily submit to fingerprinting and then putting an obscure code in the app to indicate which drivers did that. It hasn’t worked well, by all reports, with few drivers being fingerprinting and an app that provides no real help in getting you to those drivers.
Assuming some version of the bills by Schwertner, Paddie, Nichols or Huffines passes into law, Austin could provide the first real test. At this point, all of the Austin services’ drivers are fingerprinted and checked that way. Under the statewide law, the existing companies in Austin, all or even just one of them, could decide to keep requiring that of their drivers. Then a customer, if he or particularly she wanted that reassurance, could choose to use only that company.
Of course, drivers tend to have more than one app going so they can pick up more customers. So, over time, we might have fewer and fewer fingerprinted drivers. And Uber, especially, and Lyft have a lot of money behind them.
By the end of May, we’ll know how this all turned out. Finally.