In November, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office fired an attorney after she had a dispute with an Uber driver. The disagreement began when the woman told the driver to take a route different than the one on his GPS. As tension escalated, the driver hit the “record” button on his phone, capturing audio of the prosecutor verbally insulting him. He then called police when she refused to exit his vehicle.
This incident raises two interesting questions: If the driver hadn’t recorded what happened, would anyone have believed his story about the assistant district attorney? And what steps has Uber taken to ensure passengers aren’t subject to abuse and violence? That second question is at the heart of a recent lawsuit, in which two women who were sexually assaulted by their Uber driver say the company isn’t doing enough to screen drivers.
How Uber Screens Drivers
Uber and Lyft both perform background checks on drivers. Lyft repeats background checks for all drivers every year; Uber does not. And neither company requires fingerprinting, which is the most foolproof method of checking someone’s background for a criminal record. Austin taxi companies do require fingerprints from drivers for background checks.
Austin had enacted its own ordinance requiring fingerprinting for Uber and Lyft drivers, but the companies refused to comply and halted service in the city. Uber and Lyft returned to Austin only after the passage of a state law that forbids municipalities from imposing requirements on rideshare companies.
Flaws in the Screening Process
In 2015, district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco sued Uber, claiming the company had approved 25 drivers that had a background of serious offenses: murder, assault, sex offenses, and child abuse. One of those drivers had served 26 years in prison for second-degree murder – a fact that Uber somehow missed in the background check process. Uber and Lyft both use background check providers to screen drivers, but Uber and Lyft still make the final decision about whether to approve a driver.
The owner of a background check company recently wrote a blog about these reasons a criminal might be able to pass an Uber or Lyft background check:
- Conviction in another county: Companies that screen using an applicant’s Social Security number search for the applicant’s previous address, then look at court records for any counties associated with that address. So if a person committed a crime far from home, that might not show up in a background check.
- Inadequate review of federal records: Federal criminal records would be the only way to determine whether an applicant was previously charged with terrorism.
- Scope is too small: Most screening firms look back only at the preceding seven years, so a serious crime committed eight years in the past wouldn’t show up in this type of search.
- Failing to re-check drivers: Lyft’s annual screening would likely catch any new criminal offenses committed by its drivers, but an Uber driver, after the initial background check, could commit crimes without Uber’s knowledge.
With Texas law forbidding cities from fingerprinting Uber and Lyft drivers, there’s really no guarantee that passengers are safe when using rideshare services. In time, legal challenges to Uber’s business model may result in the company’s being required to fingerprint drivers, as taxi companies do.