Business & Tech

State governs Uber drivers, but couldn’t handle taxis, report says

A report said background checks similar to those conducted for Uber and Lyft drivers are not feasible for the taxi industry.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

A report said background checks similar to those conducted for Uber and Lyft drivers are not feasible for the taxi industry.

Looking to loosen regulations so it can compete with Uber and Lyft, the taxi industry has avoided new rules at the state level — at least for now.

A report issued last week by the Department of Public Utilities and Registry of Motor Vehicles concluded that the state government would be unable to subject cab drivers to the same kind of statewide vetting procedures as drivers for ride-hailing companies. Doing so would require changes to the law and an increase in resources.

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Though it “is not currently feasible” to put taxi drivers under state government oversight, the report said it may eventually be possible “through the efficient allocation of resources and investment in a robust information technology solution.”

Until the state Legislature passed a law governing the ride-hailing firms last year, there was practically no oversight of the industry in Massachusetts — much to the chagrin of cab companies, who have long called for a more “level playing field” with their competitors. Now, Uber drivers must undergo state-run background checks.

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Taxi drivers, by contrast, are not under state oversight, but are overseen by cities and towns with varying rules. In Boston, for example, taxi drivers must undergo fingerprint-based background checks, which Uber and Lyft have long resisted. Other communities have less stringent rules for cabbies.

Steven Goldberg, a Boston taxi owner who has filed several lawsuits against the state and Uber, said he does not believe the state should govern cabbies like Uber drivers, because cities and towns have a better sense for how to manage their streets.

Instead, Goldberg said, officials should address competitive issues between the industries by adjusting commercial regulations rather than background checks. For example, he said, ride-hailing companies and cabbies should not have different vehicle and insurance requirements, and taxi companies should be allowed to set their own rates like Uber and Lyft. Taxi rates are set by the cities they operate in.

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Uber and Lyft declined comment.

Some taxi issues may be addressed as part of a state task force that recently began meeting to study how to best regulate all types of hired-ride services. The task force is studying matters such as allowing taxi owners to set their own meter rates and allowing cabbies to pick up passengers in cities other than where they are licensed.

The report on taxi background checks came months after the DPU began running background checks on tens of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts, which caused the state to ban more than 10 percent of active ride-hailing drivers.

The numbers showed several drivers with violent or sexual crimes in their past had been on the road. But they also raised concerns among civil rights activists who said the state’s vetting process overly penalized drivers for minor traffic mistakes and crimes in the distant past.

Some Uber drivers maintain that the state’s background check is actually more stringent than the city’s. Several drivers who had been banned by the state are still approved to drive taxis in Boston.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.
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