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Uber, Lyft criticize Mass. background checks

Uber and Lyft are asking state regulators to revise ride-sharing regulations.
Uber and Lyft are asking state regulators to revise ride-sharing regulations.(John Locher/AP/File 2016)

Uber and Lyft on Tuesday asked state officials to revise the background checks that resulted in thousands of their drivers being kicked off the road this year.

The companies were among the dozens of people and organizations to submit comments before a Tuesday afternoon deadline. The Department of Public Utilities asked for public comment as it prepares to craft final rules governing the ride-hailing companies and drivers.

Working under interim rules, the DPU said in April that more than 8,200 ride-hailing drivers, who had already passed the private companies’ background checks, had been banned from the roads after undergoing the first-ever vetting procedure by the state.

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Hundreds of drivers were taken off the roads due to serious past violent and sexual crimes, bolstering critics’ claims that Uber and Lyft background checks were inadequate. Yet some drivers and legal advocates criticized the checks as overly stringent because they banned drivers who were convicted of crimes decades ago, who had committed minor road offenses resulting in license suspensions, or who had settled past cases without a conviction. Those drivers also have limited options to appeal the department’s decision.

Uber and Lyft each said DPU should not disqualify drivers who once agreed to a “continuance without a finding,” a type of settlement that is not a conviction but in which the defendant admits there is evidence that could result in one.

The companies also said the background checks should not look back further than seven years for many violations. And they said DPU should not have the power to disqualify drivers that did not fail the background check but that DPU decides are “likely to act in a manner that has or may result in jeopardy to the health, safety, or welfare of any person.”

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“Lyft has serious due process concerns,” the company wrote of the provision. “The process, assumptions, and findings regarding how the DPU can possibly determine how any driver is ‘likely to act’ are opaque and vague, and rely purely upon subjective determinations that are contrary to fundamental principles of social justice.”

Mayor Carlo DeMaria of Everett, where two drivers were accused of committing sex crimes last year, also submitted comments. He said he was was “very pleased” the state had disqualified more than 50 sex offenders through the check. But, he added, “I urge the DPU to consider adopting standards relative to non-violent and minor offenses that are more consistent with the spirit of [criminal justice] reform in Massachusetts.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts also criticized the checks, saying minority drivers are hurt disproportionately because black Bostonians are more likely to have been arrested than white residents.

The ACLU pointed to a few specific aspects of the check, saying lower-level sex offenders should not be banned and drivers should only be banned for a license suspension if the license is suspended at the time of the check. Currently, any suspension within the last seven years is grounds for removal.

Other organizations focused their comments on ride-hailing regulatory concerns beyond the background checks. For example, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency, argued the companies should be required to share anonymized trip data with the government to better understand transportation patterns. The nonprofit Transportation for Massachusetts made the same appeal. The National Safety Council said drivers should be required to undergo distracted driver training.

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Uber took issue with a proposed regulation that would not allow drivers to offer rides for more than 12 consecutive hours or 70 hours in a week.

Another company, Wuleeb, which according to its website operates a small ride-hailing service in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard, said DPU should establish separate regulations for companies with fewer than 300 drivers or less than $500,000 in revenue, arguing the proposed regulations are too cumbersome for companies smaller than Uber and Lyft.


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