Jurisdictions around the world slowly awaking to the possibility PTCs weren’t such a great idea after all
by Mike Beggs
While Uber – and to a lesser extent Lyft – has long been criticized for its driver screening process, the heat has really been turned up since the June 1 release of an in-depth investigation by CNN reporters, which alleged that, “thousands of criminals” were cleared to be Uber drivers.
This comes on the heels of the CNN article finding no less than 104 sexual assaults committed by U.S.-based Uber drivers over the past four years.
Among those cleared to drive for Uber was Talal Chammount, now serving a 25-year sentence for sexually assaulting one of his female passengers, three years after his release from jail in 2015. His criminal history included an assault conviction and 6.5 year sentence served for felon in possession of a firearm, and allegations of attacking his wife with a crowbar, shooting a juvenile in the leg, and seeking to smuggle rocket launchers into the Middle East.
Then there’s the recent case of Uber driver Michael Hancock, who faces charges of first degree murder after shooting and killing one of his fares in Denver, in early June. According to a probable cause statement, 911 had received a call from an Uber driver saying his passenger tried to attack him and shoot him. But investigators found 10.40 calibre cartridges on the shoulder of the highway, and police found a Ruger SR40 pistol in Hancock’s waistband.
Hancock had been driving with the company for three years. According to the Uber web site, drivers and passengers are prohibited from carrying firearms in an Uber vehicle while using the app. Just last fall, Uber was handed a stiff $8.9-million fine by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for letting drivers with “disqualifying criminal or motor vehicle records drive for it.”
Other criminals who slipped through the cracks at Uber include: an immigrant who faces trial for sexually assaulting three passengers and attacking a fourth in San Luis Obispo, California: a man convicted of attempted murder, who is now also charged with raping a passenger in Kansas City; and a murderer now on parole in Brazos County, Texas.
Uber and Lyft both stand by their background checks, with one Uber spokesman stressing, “More than 200,000 people failed our background checks in 2017, alone.”
However, the company has acknowledged some “past mistakes” in its vetting process.
And, CNN investigations of state records indicate that both Uber and Lyft have lobbied heavily to avoid having all driver applicants forced to undergo FBI fingerprinting, (and to install mandatory dash-cams). They found that since 2012 Uber and Lyft have hired 415-plus and 147 lobbyists, respectively, which attorney Miya Saika Chen said amounts to, “lobbying on steroids”.
And in fact, NONE of the 43 states which have passed new regulations for such Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s) require fingerprinting – and with Uber granted the authority to handle its own driver background checks in virtually all of these states, with next to no oversight. New York City is the only jurisdiction in the entire U.S. where ridesharing drivers are mandated to undergo fingerprint checks.
On the request of anonymity, one former Uber employee and lobbyist told CNN Uber has “essentially regulated itself, and in most states, lawmakers simply inserted Uber’s wordings” verbatim into the writing of new regulations.
Uber and Lyft background checks are mostly outsourced to a third-party provider, Checkr, which runs the individual names and social security numbers to check backgrounds, and checks America-wide sex offenders data, court records, and data bases to flag suspected terrorists.
Both companies claim fingerprinting checks can have a “discriminatory effect on minority communities facing disproportionately high arrest rates”, and create other issues.
But three Uber employees told CNN Uber’s primary motive is to approve new driver applicants as quickly as possible, to maintain its huge work force (with the knowledge that the average driver only stays about two months). Fingerprinting requirements can add weeks to the hiring process.
With Toronto PTC’s now essentially self-regulated, owner/operator Gerry Manley asks, “I wonder how many of those 200,000 police background check failures were in Toronto, or surrounding municipalities?”
He alleges there are dozens and dozens of sketchy people in Toronto that drive for Uber, and Lyft as well, and that, “the only background checks forwarded to the MLS are the ones that pass.”
“With their tremendous turnover in drivers, Uber or any other PTC can ill afford to turn down drivers, regardless of whether they pass the background checks or not,” he alleges.
“I would like to be see copies of the police background checks for the over 63,417 PTC drivers listed at the end of 2017… There is no way in hell the City could produce copies of all the driver background checks, never mind the copies of vehicle safety checks, or affidavits for insurance”.
When Uber first hit the GTHA in 2011, Hamilton owner/operator Hans Wienhold suggested they were “opening up a can of worms” by using unmarked cars to pick up young people late at night, after generations of parents telling their children to never talk to strangers.
And of the politicians who have allowed it, he alleges, “They say they’re all about safety, except when you bring up safety, they just clam up. They don’t say a word.”
And while Uber has introduced several new safety measures of late, Wienhold alleges this is largely to distract the people writing the bylaws from “doing the right thing” and mandating fingerprinting into checks.
“For the most part, Uber is blowing smoke,” he alleges. “These days, it’s like any other business blowing smoke. It’s not hard to see it.”
“Essentially, you can sit down on your couch with your smartphone and sign up with Uber (saying to yourself), ‘I think I’ll just sign up and go cruise for women,’” he alleges. “It becomes a form of speed dating. I’ve seen it on their driver forums.”
He cites a fundamental difference between PTC’s and taxis, which have always been required to have rooflights and markings.
“It’s a matter of public trust,” he adds. “I think any vehicles working as cabs have to be easily identifiable – picking up (intoxicated women). It makes them very vulnerable. All of these (PTC) cars have no numbers.”
Mark Sexsmith, accounts manager with Mississauga’s All-Star Taxi agrees that Uber would rather handle its screening in-house than comply with regulations, which draw out the process and add to costs.
He notes that at Uber Canada’s head office at 1930 Matheson Blvd., in Mississauga, driver applicants are, “lined up out the door.”
“It’s expensive to do fingerprinting. They won’t be able to find safe people,” he alleges. “Everything they do is involved in the end in getting around of regulations, in one form or another.”
Having worked in and around the Toronto taxi industry for many years, Rita Smith’s observations go even further.
“What’s going on with Uber has nothing to do with transportation. It’s a complete, and total failure of democracy and the rule of law,” she alleges. “They take any law they want and do what they want to do, up to and including sexual assault. It’s not about the taxi industry, it’s about enforcing the law.”
She notes that when taxi interests approached Toronto Police Services (TPS) Board about cracking down on Uber several years back, they were told outright, ‘We don’t know who Uber drivers are, or how to stop them.’ She claims that sent a message to every criminal in the city that TPS has no real capacity to enforce the law.
South of the border, she “doesn’t see much amounting” from the recent push by several victims of sexual assault by Uber drivers attempting to launch a class action suit against the company. She explains that when the Toronto Taxi Alliance explored legal action against Uber a few years back, they discovered the suit would have to be filed in Amsterdam, where Uber Techologies’ head office is based.
“I don’t know whether these women (are willing) to go to Amsterdam to do it,” she adds. “And they’d have to deal with the International Court of Law, in The Hague.”
In New York City, some Council leaders are now wanting to take a second look at the effect of PTC’s, with Manhattan strangled with gridlock, and taxi medallion holders plunged into a state of desperation (as evidenced by six driver suicides in the past half year).
His proposal to cap the number of Ubers shot down three years back, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio says it’s now on Council to fix these problems. Council is considering new measures, including a cap on PTC’s.
But Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Bloomberg, “I’m concerned it may be too late, with so many Uber drivers already on the street.”
Of the crisis state of cabbies, Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairani Desai told Bloomberg, “There are real human consequences to a business model predicated on destroying the labour standards, and treating workers as expendable.”
Meanwhile in London, England, all were awaiting a pivotal late June hearing to determine whether or not Uber’s operating license will be renewed by Transport for London, after it was revoked last year due to safety, and operating concerns.
Oakville owner/operator Al Prior cites a study in California which finds PTC’s are also creating congestion on lesser used roads, and not just the main arteries. He notes this will result in major expenses to repair them, and suggests this may be one reason why municipalities across North America keep ignoring taxi industry input about ridesharing.
“Could there be a hidden agenda from the government, a problem they don’t want us to know about?” he asks.
“The fees (the cities are collecting from PTC’s) don’t come anywhere close to the damage done to the roads. And you can’t find parking anywhere in Toronto now,” he observes.
Prior alleges when it comes to the regulation of PTC’s, “the public trust has been violated” regarding safety, gridlock, etc.
“We still can’t identify PTC vehicles. Why aren’t these vehicles labeled?” he asks. “Let’s say the driver quits working for Uber and is now driving privately for lockups. How many of these people have not been vetted? They’re completely off the grid.”
“Why won’t they pay attention to what we are saying? We are the experts, it’s the transportation industry,” he adds. “And don’t give us all this “new technology” crap. They’re causing more problems than they’re fixing. They moved fast under the pressure that technology was good. They blew the file.”