Uber, Lyft say they will leave Austin if fingerprinting requirement upheld

Uber driver picking up customer
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
Uber driver picking up customer

Uber and Lyft are on the same side on this issue: They vow to leave Austin if voters in Texas' capital city fail to overturn a proposal requiring drivers to be fingerprinted.

With Proposition 1, Austin voters will decide on Saturday, whether to require ride-hailing companies to conduct fingerprint background checks for their drivers.

The two companies have spent millions of dollars trying to convince voters that the measure is unnecessary, and that the companies' current background checks are more than adequate. Austin is the first U.S. city to hold a public vote on fingerprinting-ride-share legislation.

The ride services have come under increased pressure about background checks after an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was accused of going on a deadly shooting spree in February.

The City Council passed an ordinance in December requiring drivers for ride-hailing services to undergo fingerprint-based background checks. This was met with opposition from Ridesharing Works for Austin, the political action committee largely funded by Uber and Lyft, which gathered enough signatures to force adoption a weaker ordinance or a vote.

This is just one contested issue in one city, but other jurisdictions, including Chicago, Atlanta and Massachusetts, are also weighing tougher background check requirements.

Uber and Lyft have already submitted to fingerprinting requirements in New York City and Houston. Transportation in New York City is heavily regulated — every driver must be licensed by the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission — but that market was too important for the two companies not to have a presence.

Uber agreed to fingerprinting to get into the Houston market but now regrets it, saying the law is costly, doesn't improve safety and reduces the number of available drivers. The company plans to leave Houston if the law is not reversed. Already, San Antonio dumped its fingerprint stance after Uber and Lyft stopped operations there. Both Uber and Lyft turned off their apps in Corpus Christi and Galveston over the fingerprinting issue. (Lyft does not operate in Houston.)

In most jurisdictions, Uber uses background checking company Checkr to screen prospective drivers. Checkr uses name, Social Security number, banking information, driver's license number and vehicle registration, among other things, to verify identity. It also runs checks in such things as national and county criminal records, driving records, sex offender registries and global terrorism watch lists. It draws on information that is more current and comprehensive than fingerprint checks, the company says. (Lyft uses a company called Sterling Backcheck, which performs the same service.)

Opponents argue that fingerprinting is the most effective way to screen drivers' criminal history record, or "rap sheet," because it is the only way to check records held by the FBI and cannot be falsified. The FBI keeps an Identity History Summary — a list of information taken from fingerprint submissions related to arrests, certain federal employment, naturalization or military service.

"It is, hands down, more accurate than a name-based search," said Charles Carroll, senior vice president of MorphoTrust, which fingerprints 6 million people every year and counts the Transportation Security Administration as one of its biggest customers. MorphoTrust is responsible for producing all U.S. passports and driver's licenses in 41 states.

"That is universally accepted, except by the people who do not want to spend the money and are trying to shortcut it," he said.

The National Limousine Association wants the government to require all drivers of ride-hailing services to submit to fingerprint tests.

"It is the only safe way to guarantee that the general public are not going to be driven around by a felon," said Scott Solombrino, a board member of The National Limousine Association and president and CEO of Dav El, which operates a chauffeur transportation business in 600 cities globally.

Uber is more concerned with saving money than protecting riders, said Carroll.

Uber counters that a fingerprinting requirement would raise costs without improving safety.

"We are always going to care about cost, of course, but if cost would lead to an impact on safety, we would spend it," said Joe Sullivan chief security officer at Uber. "But it does not here."

It would also force drivers to place prints in a government database and unfairly penalize minorities, the company said.

"A lot of the communities of drivers who we are able to help the most — because it is an easy way to make ends meet, especially when wages are stagnant in this country — happen to be in the immigrant and minority community," said Dorothy Chou, head of public policy at Uber. "If you look at the way policing has gone in this country, it is just no surprise that arrest rates are much higher and disproportionately affect minorities."

Once drivers are on the platform, there are a number of ways that Uber is trying to make rides safer, the company said. Uber crunches the vast amount of data it collects — including driver and rider reviews and ratings — to keep tabs on behavior. It also draws on data created by a cellphone's global positioning system and accelerometer to monitor driving.

Several pilot programs test new methods for improving safety. For example, in more than 15 cities in the U.S and globally, a driver can snap a selfie at the start of a shift and that image is compared with the image on file from their driver's license to verify that the Uber driver profile matches the person behind the wheel. In Seattle, drivers use color-coded lights to help riders find cars at night. In North Carolina, some cars are fitted with Bop It toys to entertain drunken passengers so they do not distract drivers.

Uber recently posted its U.S. driver deactivation policy, which lists all safety violations that could result in removal from the platform. Being arrested is not one of them.

"We are not allowed to — and actually we do not think it is a good idea — to consider arrests," said Sullivan, Uber's chief security. "There has historically been an inordinate amount of arrests that do not lead to actual convictions."

"Those should not be a factor in adjudicating someone's riskiness to be a partner on our platform," he said.

In the long run, the company hopes to partner with cities and provide them with data they can use to improve safety, such as where people are speeding, which streets have potholes and where accidents are most likely to happen.

CORRECTION: With Proposition 1, Austin voters will decide on Saturday, whether to uphold a requirement for ride-hailing companies to conduct fingerprint background checks for their drivers.