The saga surrounding who should — and should not — be driving ride-hail vehicles like Uber and Lyft became a bit more clear this week, as the California Public Utilities Commission voted to toughen up background checks for drivers. Bay City News reports that based on new regulations, drivers’ background checks must be run by accredited companies before they’re approved to operate a car, and once a year thereafter. Evidence of such tests must be submitted to the utilities commission for approval.
The new regulations strengthen the existing rules that Lyft and Uber must search national criminal records and the U.S. Department of Justice National Sex Offender public website for drivers’ names before permitting them to use their platforms. As it now stands, drivers who are registered sex offenders, have committed violent felonies, misdemeanor assault or battery, domestic violence or have been caught drunk driving, are not eligible to drive for the ride-hail companies.
“Our actions strengthen our existing protections for consumers while being responsive to today’s transportation market,” Commissioner Liane Randolph says.
The tighter regulations come just a couple months after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new law mandating the companies to pay fines of $5,000 for every driver they approve who is later found to have a disqualifying criminal history. In addition, Brown expanded the background checks to eliminate drivers with any record of a violent felony — contradicting Uber’s policy of only going back seven years.
While both of these moves are good news for people who may hail a ride late at night after several hours at the bar, tighter regulations are pretty overdue — and this may not solve the issue of hiring drivers, sight unseen, who may pose a danger to riders.
Earlier this year, an Uber driver was charged with sexual assault and kidnapping after he allegedly drove an intoxicated passenger to a motel in Los Angeles and took advantage of her. The driver had five prior felony convictions for narcotics possession from the 1990s — but had slid under Uber’s radar as they all occurred before the company’s mandated seven-year background check.
Uber also hired a driver, Yahkhahnahn Ammi, who allegedly assaulted and raped women in both St. Louis and Kansas City while on the job. Unbeknownst to the ride-hail company, he’d been in prison in Illinois for eight years after being convicted of attempted murder. The reason he slipped under the radar: a legal name change, which meant his prior record was not pulled up in a search.
And last month, The Washington Post reported that nearly 15 percent of all ride-hail drivers in Maryland had been kicked off their platforms for failing state screenings after they were approved to drive by Uber and Lyft. Of those dismissed, 460 had criminal histories that disqualified them, and 900 were flagged due to issues with their driving records.
With just a few clicks through a search engine, it’s easy to find dozens of these stories. And while the vast majority of Lyft and Uber drivers are sane, honest people with no criminal backgrounds, any regulations put in place to ensure passengers are safe are to be celebrated. It’s just too bad that it’s happening on a state-by-state level, and not from within the companies themselves.