Will background checks soon be standard fare for Uber, Lyft?

Business | Massachusetts adopts most stringent checks in the nation in a bid to protect ride-share users
by Kim Henderson
Posted 1/13/17, 10:39 am

Massachusetts has taken the lead to improve background screening of ride-share drivers, setting what Gov. Charlie Baker calls a new “national standard.”

The law went into effect Jan. 6, requiring drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft to pass the most stringent industry background checks in the United States, according to Massachusetts officials. The increased scrutiny comes amid growing concerns over passenger safety in the app-oriented transportation world, with Massachusetts’s most recent criminal incident occurring on Christmas Day. 

Boston-area Lyft driver Kiona Thomas, 25, allegedly stabbed a rider in the neck after the two argued about how many passengers Thomas could transport. Nevada, California, and Michigan have reported similar stabbings involving ride-hailing service drivers, and accusations of sexual assaults and robberies have plagued the industry as well.

Uber’s compliance with the Massachusetts regulations comes a year after the company paid $25 million to settle a California lawsuit related to security issues. Prosecutors alleged Uber and Lyft failed to conduct proper background checks on drivers working the Los Angeles and San Francisco beats. In Uber’s case, the failure resulted in the hiring of 25 drivers with a range of felonies—murder, assault, child abuse—on their records.

George Gascón, a district attorney involved in the proceedings, said the ruling sent a clear message: “In the quest to quickly obtain market share, laws designed to protect consumers cannot be ignored.”

Despite these problems, smartphone-enabled ride-hailing services continue to grow. An Uber rider traveling from Jackson-Evers International Airport to downtown Jackson, Miss., for example, pays an average fare of $18. The same trip with Veterans Cab Taxi Services is $38.

Rapid expansion—Uber alone offers service in 550 cities—may be one reason laws affecting ride-hailing businesses across the nation vary significantly. In May, Uber and Lyft pulled out of Austin when the city decided to require fingerprinting for drivers. In contrast, the Maryland Public Service Commission voted against similar fingerprint-based background checks for drivers in December.

Nick Zaiac, policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, applauded Maryland’s decision in The Washington Post, writing that “too many regulations can be a threat to innovative industries.” He said both companies might have left Maryland immediately if the requirement had been enacted.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior correspondent for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family. Follow her on Twitter @kimhenderson319.

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