Oh, Uber. What have you done?
Turns out the free-spirited disruptive business model fueling Uber’s success in Colorado and elsewhere comes with a major flaw. Last month state regulators slapped a nearly $9 million fine on the ride-share company after finding that its system for checking drivers for criminal backgrounds leaves a lot to be desired.
Officials with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission found that 63 Uber drivers had issues with their driver’s licenses, and 57 of them had violations that represent a threat to public safety. The PUC asked Uber and ride-share competitor Lyft in August to submit records of all drivers accused, arrested or convicted of crimes that would disqualify them from ride-sharing service, according to The Denver Post’s Tamara Chuang.
Regulators did so after Vail police let them know that an Uber driver in March yanked a passenger from the car and kicked him in the face. There have been other instances of trouble. In July an Uber driver in Denver pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace after rolling his car on the leg of parking attendant at Denver International Airport.
Lyft handed over about 20 records, but none proved problematic. Uber turned in more than 100, stating that the drivers no longer worked for the company. When Uber’s records were crossed-checked against state crime and court databases, officials discovered other violations and found that many of the drivers used aliases.
The review found that a dozen drivers had felony convictions, 17 had major moving violations and three had interlock driver’s licenses — among the penalties for drunken driving.
Yes, even the more regulated taxi companies plying our streets sometimes have drivers who turn out to be bad actors. But Colorado’s ride-share law allows the newcomers to avoid the fingerprint background checks run through the FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation that cabbies must submit to. Instead, ride-share companies are allowed to run private background checks.
The companies lobbied hard for the privilege, but it has led to thousands of their drivers being banned from work in other states, after follow-up screening found the private system allowed in bad apples, including 51 registered sex offenders in Massachusetts.
Uber says that the fingerprint method doesn’t always work, arguing that there are gaps between state and federal records. But PUC officials say fingerprint background checks are better at catching drivers who rely on aliases, a claim supported by the findings that led to the $8.9 million fine.
Uber is contesting the fine, which suggests the company would be unwilling to voluntarily change its system.
We like the convenience and affordability that ride-share companies offer and share in the excitement of those who love the service. In the pioneering early days of the ride-share experiment, we understood the argument that riders understood that they were risking a far less regulated option than taxis.
But now that ride-share services are ubiquitous, our guess is many riders assume the drivers are legit.
In the next legislative session, Colorado lawmakers ought to consider revisions to the law they passed in 2014 enabling the service. Better background checks make good sense.