Taking the fingerprints of Uber and Lyft drivers has a superficial kind of logic to it, but new laws should be based on more than that.
Let's stipulate that passengers don't want to get into cars operated by career criminals or habitual drunken drivers, and that it might be harder for such people to hide under fake names if ride-hailing services collected prints from them. This is why the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association is urging legislative leaders to mandate fingerprint-based background checks.
The subtext is that, if using unique biometric identifiers to search criminal databases makes better information available, of course we should go through the trouble of getting them. Ride-hailing companies are "in a big hurry to get these drivers on the road," Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told the Globe last week, adding that Uber drivers should be held to the same standards as cabbies. The department will begin fingerprinting taxi drivers within a month.
Uber dislikes fingerprinting requirements, partly because they're an obstacle to bringing new drivers into the system. The so-called transportation network companies bill themselves as an easy way for car owners to earn a little extra money for a few hours' work. Fingerprinting is an added hurdle for would-be drivers and adds time and administrative complexity to the process.
For better or worse, it's the ruthless efficiency of ride-hailing systems — the vast network of potential drivers, the variable pricing, the frictionless dispatching — that allows you to get a ride home on a rainy Saturday night, and that shouldn't be sacrificed lightly.
Currently, Uber and Lyft use private background-check services to scrutinize their drivers. In August, district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco asserted as part of a civil suit that Uber had missed the criminal backgrounds of 25 drivers. One driver, paroled in 2008 after a 1982 murder conviction, had signed onto the system under a different name.
Yet in the smattering of crime incidents linked to Uber drivers or taxi drivers, false identities don't appear to play much of a role. Meanwhile, if fingerprint checks were essential to protecting the safety of passengers in hired vehicles, Boston police surely would have required them of cab drivers long before now.
The local branches of the ACLU and the NAACP have questioned the proposed fingerprint checks on the grounds that law enforcement databases contain inaccurate data — and may not reflect cases that were dropped. The fingerprint rules, they argue, could needlessly exclude drivers from minority communities where police make a lot of arrests.
Meanwhile, Uber's underlying theory of what keeps passengers safe is far different from the police chiefs'. Beyond a formal background check, the company argues, feedback systems in which passengers rate their drivers also help weed out bad actors; the data in drivers' and passengers' smartphones make it likely that the perpetrator of any assault will get caught. "Right now we are at least as safe and likely safer than any other system that's out there," maintains Ed Davis, the former Boston police commissioner who's now a consultant for Uber.
Ride-hailing passengers have concluded that the benefits of the service are worth accepting a lighter touch from regulators. At this point, who's to say these customers are wrong, and the police chiefs are right?
Correction: My Sunday column misstated Stephen Silveira's former title. He was an assistant director of planning and deputy director of real estate for the MBTA.