The startling results of the first state-run background check of Uber and Lyft drivers by Massachusetts has some regulators in other states and cities asking if they should toughen their reviews of drivers’ backgrounds.
More than 8,200 of the nearly 71,000 drivers who had already cleared background checks by the ride-hailing companies have been banned after failing a new state records review, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities announced in early April. The numbers included 51 registered sex offenders and hundreds who were rejected for other sex-related crimes and violent histories. Others were banned for minor license-related offenses.
Dan Saltzman, a Portland, Ore., commissioner who oversees the ride-hail industry, said the Massachusetts results are prompting him to consider a more thorough review of drivers in his city. Portland requires Uber and Lyft to hire an outside company to review their drivers, and it occasionally audits those results. But the Massachusetts data, Saltzman said, “gives us food for thought” about requiring a government check.
“That’s our whole job, worrying about the safety of our passengers,” Saltzman said. “I think we need to dig down a little deeper to make sure that people who shouldn’t be driving aren’t slipping through.”
The Massachusetts review was authorized by the Legislature last year, and the background checks began in January. It does not include fingerprinting, which Uber, in particular, has fiercely opposed, but does look deeper into drivers’ criminal and driving pasts than the companies’ vetting does.
Uber and Lyft point out they are legally prohibited from looking more than seven years back in a driver’s history, and so are not going to catch older offenses that governments will see.
They’ve also argued the state system is unfair to many drivers, because they can be rejected for seemingly minor violations, such as a single license suspension within the last seven years. The state also banned some drivers who years ago had settled cases that allowed them to have the original charges dismissed.
For those reasons, Uber said, other states should not adopt the type of background checks in place in Massachusetts.
“The implementation of this check has led to thousands of people unfairly losing the ability to earn. I would not want to see that repeated,” said Jason Post, Uber’s policy director.
Most jurisdictions that regulate ride-hailing companies require them to conduct background checks but do not include a government review. Many states have also recently adopted laws that bar cities and towns from requiring government checks. These laws are favored by Uber, which has lobbied in state capitols across the country.
Lyft said the model works well, and cautioned other states against adopting the Massachusetts check.
“It would be a mistake to prevent good and qualified drivers around the country from earning needed income as a result of one state’s rule-making,” Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said.
Officials in Virginia agree. That state requires Uber and Lyft to run private background checks and to disqualify drivers for certain offenses, such as any violent felony conviction or a drunken driving offense in the past seven years. Brandy Brubaker, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said officials “haven’t identified any failures” with the process.
But Dave Sutton, spokesman for Who’s Driving You, a national campaign backed by the taxi industry that lobbies for more stringent ride-hail background checks, said other states should not ignore what happened in Massachusetts because it is one of the largest reviews ever conducted on companies’ own background checks.
The state most similar to Massachusetts may be Maryland, which since 2015 has reviewed the background checks conducted by the companies. As a result, according to Maryland Public Service Commission spokeswoman Tori Leonard, the state has removed about 6 percent of 74,000 drivers from the roads, because it uses different standards for drivers than the companies.
The “supplemental background check process has been actively rejecting a significant percentage of drivers, like Massachusetts,” Leonard said.
Maryland recently granted waivers to Uber and Lyft from a fingerprinting requirement, but it will still review their checks.
The number of rejected Massachusetts drivers has emboldened officials elsewhere who have called for more government involvement.
One example is Austin, Texas, where in 2016 Uber and Lyft stopped operating, in protest of a city rule requiring background checks using fingerprints. They may return to Austin if the Texas Legislature passes a law similar to others around the country requiring only the company check and preventing local governments from adding their own.
Jason Stanford, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler, said the Massachusetts results show why that proposed Texas law should not pass.
“What’s happened in Massachusetts seems to vindicate what our police chief told us: There is a value to having a [government] background check,” Stanford said. “But all of that will be for naught if the state passes a law preempting our local law.”
Meanwhile, officials in a few other states say they now have good reason to reconsider not running their own checks.
In 2016, Rhode Island lawmakers passed a law requiring the companies to do a check, but not the state. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, however, wants drivers to be fingerprinted, and has filed a bill that would require one. Joee Lindbeck, an assistant attorney general in Rhode Island, said Kilmartin will point to the Massachusetts findings as his office pushes for fingerprinting.
The director of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, Doug Dean, said the number of Massachusetts rejections “tells me that there’s a problem with the private background checks.” Dean, whose agency oversees Uber and Lyft, has long wanted drivers to be fingerprinted, but state law prohibits a government check.
However, Dean said he was not optimistic he could get Colorado lawmakers to reconsider.
Some states have already tightened requirements.
In California, Uber and Lyft’s home state, lawmakers recently required the companies to expand their checks beyond seven years and to reject drivers with any violent-felony convictions. The companies had previously been barred from looking beyond seven years.
California regulators are also considering whether to require a fingerprint-based check, said Christopher Chow, spokesman for the California Public Utilities Commission.
Harry Campbell, an industry analyst who blogs about ride-hail driver issues, shares Uber’s concern that some Massachusetts drivers are being unfairly banned over long-ago offenses or minor violations. But lawmakers elsewhere may be concerned by the number of sex offenders that the Massachusetts review found, he said.
“It’s a huge sign to regulators everywhere that Uber and Lyft’s background checks may not be stringent enough,” Campbell said.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.