In October, Congress discussed ways it could regulate ride-hailing on a national basis. In this two-part series, Smart Cities Dive examines the impacts of potential laws on safety and the labor force.
Improving ride-hailing safety could be a hallmark of national regulations currently under discussion in Congress, with expanded background checks and fingerprinting suggested as ways to enhance rider and driver security.
This foray into the space on the federal level — existing ride-hail regulation has so far only been done on the local and state levels — kicked off with an October hearing to address how wide-spreading regulations could curb a number of high-profile incidents surrounding sexual assault and violence.
While ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft insist they do all they can to ensure the safety of riders and drivers, elected officials suggested there is more to be done, such as requiring more signs on vehicles.
"Congress now has a chance to come together and enact change which will protect people," Rep. Thomas Suozzi, D-NY, said in written testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit in October. "It is our duty to do all we can do protect our constituents."
Bolstering background checks
A major tenet of national safety regulations could be around increasing background checks, which have been criticized by some as inadequate but defended by ride-hailing companies as effective.
Currently, drivers go through background checks online. They provide a company with their social security number, which is then checked against local, state and national databases for any history of serious criminal offenses. The individual's driving record is checked, too. But what information is checked, and the enforcement of any violations, can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Instead, Matt Curtis, founder of the Smart City Policy Group, which advises cities and businesses on the sharing economy, said national laws could help create a base standard of background checks and safety requirements. He said that Congress setting that minimum could then empower local governments to do even more.
"I think what the U.S. government would like to do is set a standard for states and cities to follow," Curtis told Smart Cities Dive. "It's just a standard, it's simply a low bar that states and cities could do even more, could create even higher levels of regulation to create a greater sense of safety for their citizenry."
In written responses to the subcommittee following the October hearing, both Uber and Lyft argued their background check processes are enough to weed out bad actors.
"The types of incidents our team handles encompass a wide spectrum, and therefore there is no 'one size fits all' approach to dealing with them," Justin Kintz, Uber's VP for Global Public Policy, wrote to legislators. "We review each case individually based on the information available to us."
But there is clearly plenty of work to be done. Uber released its first-ever safety report this month, disclosing there have been nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assault from 2017 to 2018, involving both riders and drivers. With more than 2 billion rides in the course of that time in the U.S. alone, the number is relatively small, though the company acknowledged they can make more progress in addressing inappropriate behavior.
"The moment is now for companies to confront it, count it, and work together to end it," Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post.
For some lawmakers, those assurances were not enough, especially considering some damning evidence that safety incidents are occurring all too frequently.
During the congressional hearing, committee chair Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-OR, said in his district, "a dozen applicants with serious criminal convictions, including a convicted murderer and a registered sex offender," could drive for Uber and Lyft under their screening process until the local police department performed more stringent checks and removed them.
Paul Miller, legislative counsel to The Transportation Alliance, which represents taxi, limousine, paratransit and ride-hailing companies, said in written testimony that its "Who's Driving You" campaign tabulated news articles alleging 395 sexual assaults, 102 physical assaults and 22 kidnappings by Uber and Lyft drivers from July 2013 to August 2018.
"Because these incidents were discovered among news stories, rather than by scouring police reports, we firmly believe the actual number of victims to be substantially higher since, as we know, sexual assault cases are always tragically underreported," Miller testified.
The companies reject those assertions. In its safety report, Uber said drivers are also victims of assault at roughly the same rate as riders. Both Uber and Lyft tout the continued enhancing of their in-app safety features that make it easier than ever for riders or drivers to report incidents. They also defended their background check process and other provisions as capable of weeding out criminal behavior. And Lyft recently announced it now conducts continuous screening of drivers' records for red flags.
However, in paperwork filed for their IPOs with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), both companies acknowledged their reputations could take a hit if there are continued issues around safety.
In separate statements to Smart Cities Dive at the time of the hearing, an Uber spokesperson said safety "will always be a long-term commitment for us," while a Lyft spokeswoman said safety is "fundamental" to its work. And elected leaders said all ride-hailing drivers should not be tarred with the same brush just because of a few bad actors. Any legislation should consider this is a minority, not the rule, they said.
"I've talked to many Uber and Lyft drivers in my district who are grateful for the opportunity to have a part-time job or something of that sort," Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-PA, said during the hearing. "None of them have assaulted anyone, none of them have murdered anyone. The idea I've heard today bashing all Uber and Lyft drivers due to criminality and horrific crimes of a few of them, it's insulting."
Lawmakers argued that expanding background checks to include fingerprinting would be an effective way to catch criminals, although the companies and some advocates disagree with that assessment.
Uber and Lyft both argue adding fingerprinting to their background check processes would create undue burden for prospective drivers, and not be accurate as the FBI's fingerprint database is incomplete, has arrest records and does not have any information on whether convictions have been made.
In their written testimonies, both companies cited a letter from former Attorney General Eric Holder arguing that fingerprint checks can have a disproportionate effect on communities of color as they are more likely to encounter the police. Lyft director Believe said that trend is a concern that goes to "Lyft's core principles and its fierce commitment to fighting for better opportunities for people."
"This rush to put anyone behind the wheel, regardless of their criminal history, is the reason why we are seeing the increase in incidents against [ride-hailing] passengers today."
Legislative counsel, The Transportation Alliance
Campbell said many of Uber and Lyft's objections are "more PR narrative than anything," and said it instead comes down to them wanting to have as many drivers on their platforms as quickly as possible.
"Even though it might seem like a small thing, I think in Uber and Lyft's system that's a big hiccup for them and they do have a big issue with their driver churn numbers, that they're always looking to hire new drivers," Campbell said. "It's a big issue for them."
Miller echoed that view in his testimony, saying there is a correlation between the proliferation of drivers on the streets and the rise in incidents.
"This rush to put anyone behind the wheel, regardless of their criminal history, is the reason why we are seeing the increase in incidents against [ride-hailing] passengers today," he said.
From a driver's point of view, getting fingerprinted can be a difficult process, as it involves going in person to a government office, waiting in line, submitting fingerprints, paying the processing fees and waiting for the results.
That time and financial commitment might be too onerous for many drivers on the lower end of the income scale, but Campbell said many drivers could favor fingerprinting to improve the overall reputation of their industry. That favoring of fingerprints could also have more selfish motives, as it could limit the number of drivers on the streets and drive down competition for fares.
"I think that's one thing we hear from drivers: if they were fingerprinted, then there might be a better impression of safety or they might not be looked upon like they're going to do something bad," Campbell said. "The big reason why a lot of drivers like it is actually a selfish one, it's because it limits competition… Drivers really want as few drivers out on the road as possible, so that means they'll get more rides, there'll be more surge pricing, they can make more money."
Perhaps a more incremental safety approach that has received support from the ride-hailing companies — and could represent low-hanging fruit for regulators — is enhancing requirements for identifying ride-hailing vehicles.
That forms the cornerstone of Sami's Law, filed by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-NJ, to protect ride-hailing passengers from assault. The legislation would require front license plates and scannable codes on both back passenger-side windows, which could be scanned by a smartphone before entering the vehicle. Passengers could also opt for a four-digit PIN number to verify.
"We want to create a level of safety for when people are getting in the back of a car, that there's as slim a chance as possible of there being any bad activity happening while in that vehicle."
Founder, Smart City Policy Group
The bill would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study instances of rider or driver assault and examine background checks. It would also ban the sale of Uber and Lyft signs from anyone other than the companies themselves.
"If it provides an element for a young woman or anyone to be able to feel safe when getting in the back of one of these vehicles, if it's something that's reasonable, it should be something that the companies would want to adopt," Curtis said.
Adding to that further enforcement of enhanced signage, lawmakers said Uber and Lyft should be more judicious in ensuring counterfeit versions of their vehicle signs are not sold on the internet. During the hearing, Smith noted how easily such signs could be purchased and said that could add to the issue of bad actors posing as ride-hailing drivers.
Both companies said in their written testimony they enforce the trademarking of their signs, including by working with Amazon and others where counterfeits can be found. But Believe acknowledged that is not always effective.
"...[F]ilters are not 100% effective, and unauthorized and counterfeit sellers are sometimes able to evade them by altering images, using typos and misspellings, and avoiding key terms," she wrote. "As a back-up measure, Lyft and its third-party professional brand enforcement vendor proactively monitor these marketplaces on a daily basis and send takedown requests to the platforms to immediately remove any offending items that they identify."
Curtis said the ride-hailing industry and regulators can learn lessons from other areas in the automotive industry as they look to improve safety. And while ride-hailing companies have generally been allowed to take the lead and self-regulate, he said there is an opportunity for elected officials to step up, as they have done in the past.
"We did it through the automobile industry by insisting that there has to be some level of safety requirements in cars regarding seat belts, windshield wipers and headlights," Curtis said. "This is essentially the same thing. We want to create a level of safety for when people are getting in the back of a car, that there's as slim a chance as possible of there being any bad activity happening while in that vehicle."