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JOAN VENNOCHI

It’s fair to question Uber safety after driver arrests

The Uber app.Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS/File 2013

Uber won the battle of the background check in Massachusetts the same way it wins it everywhere else — by threatening to take its business elsewhere if fingerprinting is required for its drivers.

Now a string of recent local arrests involving Uber drivers is reviving legitimate concerns about the app-based ride-hailing service. “No one’s against Uber,” said state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, who fought unsuccessfully to have Uber and Lyft drivers fingerprinted. “I recognize it’s part of our transportation landscape. But are folks safe, and who is behind the wheel?”

Uber critics are usually cast as protectors of the dying taxi industry, or as oldsters who are too uncool to appreciate the thrill of innovative disruption. But that doesn’t explain away the four Uber drivers who were arrested last month on a variety of charges — all of whom passed the company’s background check. According to Uber spokesman Jason Post, that doesn’t mean the background checks are inadequate. It simply means, “There is no way to assure that a bad person isn’t going to do a bad thing.”

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Uber’s background checks are conducted by a third-party validator called Checkr. Driving records are checked, said Post, as well as criminal history, as recorded at the local courthouse level. The National Sex Offender Registry and Terrorist Watch List are also checked.

The new Massachusetts law that regulates Uber and Lyft — signed last August by Governor Charlie Baker — adds a state background check to those conducted by the transportation companies. Regulations will be promulgated by a new division of the Department of Public Utilities. But they aren’t due until August 2017, and they don’t include fingerprinting.

Uber has fought off fingerprint checks across the country and pulled out of Austin, Texas, when they were imposed in that city. They are costly and time-consuming. But Uber CEO Travis Kalanick prefers to describe his resistance as a commitment to social justice. Using fingerprint checks as a benchmark for hiring is discriminatory, the company argues, because it unjustly excludes too many minorities from employment.

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“I reject that. Not all black people or people of color are committing crime,” said Dorcena Forry, who is Haitian-American. Besides, she added, she doesn’t need Uber to preach civil rights to her. “How many people of color are on their executive team? Let me know how many black, Latino, and Asian people there are, and then when they talk about excluding people, then OK, I’ll listen.”

Replied Post: “We respectfully decline to release those numbers.’’ He also noted that local civil rights and civil liberties organizations back the Uber anti-fingerprinting policy.

Dorcena Forry said her priority is simple: passenger safety.

The most recent incident involving an Uber driver occurred in Forry’s Senate district. The driver, who pleaded not guilty, was arraigned on charges that he sexually assaulted a passenger in Dorchester. According to the Globe, that driver was charged in 2010 with indecent assault and battery, but the case was dismissed. He also has an eight-page driving record that includes citations for speeding, failing to stop, and other violations.

Also in August, two Uber drivers were charged with sex-related offenses in Everett; and a third Uber driver was charged with assaulting a woman and stealing from her in Malden. The victim in that case, however, had contacted the man directly, not through the ride-hailing app.

Forry said she’s talking to colleagues about revisiting the fingerprinting issue. In the meantime, she wonders why Massachusetts has let Uber dictate safety policy via threats to leave.

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No matter how fancy the technology, Uber’s basic business is moving people from place to place. Are those people safe? It’s fair to ask — and to see if there’s a way to make them safer before next August.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.