Hailing a ride with a smartphone app in many U.S. cities is coming down to a fight over fingerprints.
Following incidents where Uber drivers were found to have criminal records, a number of state and local officials have proposed fingerprint background checks for ride-hailing drivers — often with the support of local taxi companies.
Uber and its chief rival, Lyft, have fought those checks, contending their own method of vetting drivers is just as safe. Their political muscle showed in the past week. The Chicago City Council Wednesday passed ride-hailing regulations that exclude fingerprint checks after an alderman removed the fingerprint requirement when Uber and Lyft threatened to leave the city. Rhode Island on Saturday passed regulations without fingerprint checks, which also are under consideration in Atlanta and the states of New Jersey, California and Massachusetts.
Uber and Lyft have recently made good on threats to vacate cities that impose fingerprint checks, such as Austin, leaving drivers without jobs and riders without an alternative to taxis. Agreeing to fingerprint checks, as Uber did in Houston, slows the pace of hiring and increases pickup times.
In Fort Worth, council members have instructed city staffers to craft a new vehicle-for-hire ordinance that largely deregulates the industry.
Uber and Lyft hire private background companies that run a driver’s name, license and Social Security number through local court records, national criminal databases and a federal sex offender registry. Searches can take as little as 24 hours. Lyft rechecks drivers each year, but Uber does not.
In a lawsuit against Uber, prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Francisco found 25 drivers who passed Uber’s checks despite having criminal histories, including a driver convicted of felony sexual exploitation of a minor. Uber paid $25 million to settle the case in April. Lyft paid a smaller amount, and both agreed to stop implying that their background checks were safer.
Both companies have enlisted high-powered supporters to fight fingerprinting. Earlier this month, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose law firm advises Uber, sent letters to New Jersey and Chicago lawmakers saying fingerprints are unfair and potentially discriminatory.
Uber, after just six years, completes 150 million rides per month in nearly 450 cities worldwide. Lyft, which started four years ago, does 11 million rides per month in more than 200 U.S. cities. The companies need thousands of drivers to make the model work.
Uber and Lyft blame taxi companies for the fingerprint push. Cab drivers in most major cities are fingerprinted and even drug-tested. The ride-hailing companies say their drivers – almost all part-time – are squeezed for time and cash and don’t want additional hurdles.
In Houston, ride-hailing drivers who pass a background check from Uber can drive for 30 days until doing a city-required fingerprint check, a physical and a drug test.
This article includes material from Star-Telegram archives.