UPDATE at 4:24 p.m. Thursday, March 17, 2016: Uber and Lyft have responded, arguing that their background checks are solid. See more at the bottom of the story.
Uber and Lyft are constantly recruiting drivers for their growing ride-hail businesses.
It makes it easier that almost anyone with a late-model sedan, a driver's license and a smartphone can get on this gravy train.
But critics have called out the app firms for using cheaper and less-stringent driver background checks. Taxi drivers in Los Angeles, for example, must submit to Live Scan fingerprinting that ensures you are who you say you are.
The ride-hail companies only require applicants to submit ID. The concern is that an older brother who has been convicted of sex crimes, for example, could use his younger brother's name (and clean record) to drive for Uber or Lyft.
Today L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council president Herb Wesson and Councilman Paul Krekorian announced that they've sent a jointly signed letter to the California Public Utilities Commission asking that Los Angeles be allowed to implement a pilot program that would require ride-hail and limo drivers to be fingerprinted if they want to work in city limits.
"For decades, Los Angeles has required taxi operators to work under a franchise agreement with the city, which requires Live Scan fingerprints to crosscheck potential drivers with the state’s Department of Justice database and others," reads a statement from the trio. "This provides an essential safeguard for riders by preventing people with significant or violent criminal histories from driving passengers in the City of Los Angeles."
The proposal seeks to have fingerprints checked against California Department of Justice records, require that the ride-hail companies let city officials know when fingerprint records don't match those non-fingerprint background checks, and require the firms to "reveal how and why they deny drivers employment, what the appeals processes are, and how fingerprinting requirements impact the number of drivers they accept or reject."
In late 2014 the District Attorney's office sued Uber because it allegedly misrepresented the extent of its driver screening.
Cited were Uber ads and statements that said the firm was "setting the strictest safety standards possible" and implementing "industry-leading standards" that one company rep said are "often more rigorous than what is required to become a taxi driver."
"Uber continues to put consumers at risk by misleading the public about the background checks of its drivers," DA Jackie Lacey stated at the time.
Why not just succumb to fingerprint-based checks? The current way is certainly cheaper and easier. Uber never even has to meet a driver face-to-face in order to get him working. Everything can be done online. But Live Scan requires a trip to a processing location and, usually, about $32.
That could be a lot of money to some of the desperados trying to make ends meet by putting miles on their cars. As it is, Uber and Lyft often guarantee cash bonuses, often in the hundreds of dollars, to new drivers before they even pick up their first customers.
City officials are concerned, especially since the ride-hail apps now can pick up passengers at LAX. With a history of a handful of sexual-assault allegations against ride-hail drivers, one high-profile case could blow up in city leaders' faces.
In 2014, as it lobbied for permission to pick up LAX passengers, Uber cut ties with eight drivers who had previously undiscovered criminal records.
"A fingerprinting pilot program makes sense in L.A. and will help the Public Utilities Commission gather valuable information as it contemplates implementing a more thorough background-check program statewide," Krekorian said. "Keeping the riding public safe is something we should strive to do and requiring full and fair fingerprint background checks across the board will push us in that direction."
It's not clear how the PUC, which regulates Uber and Lyft, might respond. A spokesman we spoke to wasn't yet familiar with the proposal.
We reached out to Uber and Lyft but have not heard back from them.
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UPDATE at 4:04 p.m. Thursday, March 17, 2016: Uber spokesman Michael Amodeo had this to say this afternoon:
Our technology makes it possible to focus on safety for riders and drivers before, during and after every trip in ways that have never been possible before. No background check is perfect, but we believe that the background check process that [we] use — which includes screening through national, state and local databases — stacks up well against the alternatives, without unnecessarily discriminating against minorities as fingerprint-based checks do.
UPDATE at 4:24 p.m., Thursday, March 17, 2016: Lyft sent us this statement:
All Lyft drivers undergo a comprehensive screening process, which includes an independent, professionally administered background check mandated by the State of California, as well as an in-person session where their credentials are confirmed. Innovations like real-time consumer feedback and automatically emailed digital receipts with the ride route, driver name and driver picture are fundamental to the rapid adoption of Lyft. These safety advances are the reason that millions of people across California choose to use ridesharing every day.