Internet-based ride-share services using drivers operating their own cars — like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar — have enjoyed phenomenal growth since they appeared over the past decade. In San Francisco, where those companies began and are still based, an ordinary cab averaged 65% fewer rides during a recent 15-month period.
Conventional taxi and limo companies are trying to slow the inroads being made by these innovative and usually lower-priced competitors. In San Francisco, taxis must follow extensive rules set by the Municipal Transportation Agency, while the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) takes a lighter hand in regulating the upstart for-hire services. Foes of ride-sharing companies often seek to have them forced to register as cab companies and face the same rules, or press regulators to impose other new requirements on the ride sharers.
In 2013, the PUC adopted rules for “transportation network companies,” as it calls ride-sharing firms, requiring them to train drivers and carry liability insurance on them, have criminal background checks done and monitor their traffic violations, enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy for DUI, and ensure vehicles are inspected annually.
With support from some regulators and consumer groups, the traditional companies not only pushed regulatory bodies to expand rules for ride-sharing companies, but also asked state legislatures for new laws on their competitors. In 2014, California adopted standards for the insurance ride-sharing firms must have for their drivers.
But the California legislature did not take up a more detailed and onerous bill proposed by a San Fernando Valley Democrat who called ride-sharing services “high-tech hitchhiking.” AB 612, introduced by Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian, would have, among other things, required ride-share drivers to be enroll in a state Department of Motor Vehicles program that sends automatic notices to employers of workers arrested for DUI or convicted for a serious driving offense, be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol, and get pre-hire fingerprint and background checks done by the state Department of Justice (a process that can take up to two months).
The ride-share companies objected PUC regulations already dealt with many of these issues, and defended their own background checks on drivers. Uber, for example, maintained its privately-done employee background investigations were as good as, or better than, those used by many taxi companies.
Uber’s background checks examine seven years’ worth of criminal records in every county where the driver has lived and in multi-state and federal databases, screen the National Sex Offender Registry, do pre-hire and periodic checks of motor vehicle records, and run a lifetime trace on Social Security data. Disqualifying events in a driver’s history include a fatal or hit-and-run accident, a DUI or drug-related driving offense, a violent crime or sexual offense, driving without insurance or with a suspended license, a gun-related offense, or evading or resisting arrest.
Though the bill did not emerge from committee, the sponsor offered a nearly identical version (AB 24) in the new legislative session; it includes the earlier bill’s main provisions, plus a few more (ride-sharing cars would have to carry decal markings, and be registered with the PUC.)
Ride sharers mostly contented themselves with observing inaction on the earlier bill showed both the lack of need and the legislature’s absence of interest; some allies were less restrained, saying the measure was not intended to protect public safety, but to stymie innovative competitors. CALinnovates, a technology group active on the issue, scornfully said the fingerprint check requirement “isn’t a silver bullet, it’s a red herring.”
Jumping into the fight for Nazarian, however, was a group of eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all Democrats but only two from California. A five-paragraph letter to the CEOs of the three companies called on them to adopt fingerprint-based background checks for all drivers, current and prospective. Noting allegations of “multiple instances of sexual assaults by drivers hired to work in your industry,” the letter concluded there was “an urgent need” to improve current screening standards.