Here’s what we know: Taxi drivers are subject to more-stringent background checks, such as fingerprinting, than are ride-sharing drivers. Although ride-sharing-service providers tell us that they perform criminal-background checks on all of the people who are a part of their driving network, no ride-sharing service checks a driver’s fingerprints as a part of its background check. Experts whom we interviewed say fingerprint analysis is the best way to get a comprehensive look at a driver, because it allows the companies that vet a driver on behalf of a ride-sharing-service provider to check a potential driver’s background against FBI’s crime database.
Spokespeople from Lyft and Uber tell us that passenger safety is their top priority and that they screen drivers thoroughly, because they conduct background checks on drivers and disqualify drivers who fail to meet their standards. Both services require drivers to have a driver’s license for at least 1 year; have no major moving violations, such as driving while intoxicated, driving under the influence or reckless driving; have no more than three minor moving violations, such as speeding, traffic-light violations or nonfatal accidents in the past 3 years; and have a clean criminal record within a certain time frame. No one could tell us how many of the drivers whom they screen fail to meet these standards. Lyft and Uber say fingerprinting is too costly for drivers and would slow their process to enlist new drivers.
Lyft and Uber left Austin, Texas, in May 2016, when the city’s voters rejected a proposition that would have repealed city regulations that required ride-sharing-service drivers to pass fingerprint-background checks. Ten small ride-sharing services started in place of Lyft and Uber and agreed to fingerprint-background checks for potential drivers. Austin Transportation Department says it disqualified 86 would-be drivers in August 2016 after their fingerprint checks turned up criminal offenses. No one could tell us whether Lyft’s and Uber’s background checks would have flagged the offenses, but the point is moot. Lyft and Uber returned to Austin in May 2017 after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that removed Austin’s fingerprinting requirements. Abbott’s signature also eliminated the fingerprinting requirement in Houston, where it was in effect since 2014.
In December 2016, Maryland’s Public Service Commission rejected a provision that would have required ride-sharing drivers to undergo fingerprint-background checks. At press time, New York was the only city that requires fingerprint checks for ride-sharing drivers, and we haven’t heard of any movement to overturn it. San Francisco is debating whether to require fingerprinting but hadn’t reached a decision at press time.
Another issue that cities are considering is whether ride-sharing services should be classified as a taxi service or as something else. Lyft and Uber call themselves transportation network companies (TNC), which means that they aren’t subject to as much licensing and regulation as are taxis. For example, taxi drivers typically are required to get a taxi and limousine commercial license, which costs about $550. Lyft and Uber drivers have to get one in New York City, but everywhere else, they have to have only a driver’s license. Lyft and Uber are required to be licensed with the state; individual drivers aren’t.
New York is the only city where ride-sharing-service drivers have to buy their own commercial insurance, as taxi drivers must. Because Lyft and Uber aren’t classified a taxi service elsewhere, they’re able to provide commercial insurance for their drivers that covers the driver and passengers if a ride-sharing vehicle were involved in a crash. Lyft and Uber each now provides up to $1 million in liability coverage per incident and up to $50,000 for comprehensive/collision coverage when a passenger is in the vehicle.
Attorney Brian Salvi of Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard tells us that this insurance coverage is adequate for passengers. However, if you want to sue the driver, Lyft and Uber have arbitration clauses in their terms of service that require all criminal and personal-injury cases to be arbitrated instead of being heard in front of a jury. What’s more is that you can’t appeal the arbitration ruling, as you can appeal a court ruling.
“You’re better off in the court system than you are in an arbitration system,” Salvi says.
Battling an arbitration system is the last thing that we’d want to think about if we were injured in an accident.
Jamie Bartosch has written for the Daily Herald for 19 years and contributes to USA Today.