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Share and share alike in Austin…except for rides.

Uber and Lyft take their services elsewhere after new fingerprint background check requirement of drivers.

Photo by Zimride Crew

Additional measures by cities to ensure the safety of passengers in the new age of transportation services which can now be requested through mobile apps—Uber and Lyft, seems to costing them and their citizens.

Calling a cab is now becoming a thing of the past with Uber and Lyft taking over the “ride-hailing market.”  With using the Uber or Lyft application on a smartphone, requesting a ride is now a few taps away.  Not only is it a quicker alternative to catching a ride, it is also a much cheaper option that allows you to pay with your credit or debit card.  But as of May 9, 2016, voters in the city of Austin voted on additional measurements to be used in the background checks of Uber and Lyft drivers.

In late 2015, the city of Austin, Texas voted on an ordinance that would require drivers of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, to enforce passing fingerprint based background checks for drivers.

In late 2015, the city of Austin, Texas voted on an ordinance that would require drivers of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, to enforce passing fingerprint based background checks for drivers.  This ordinance was intended to regulate these companies more like a traditional taxi company.  Under the “yet-to-be-implemented ordinance,” prospective drivers for such companies will be required to provide a set of fingerprints to the Austin Transportation Department.  The fingerprints would be checked under the Texas state criminal history database and with the FBI for a national criminal history check.

On Saturday May 7th, votes weighed against “vehicle-for-hire apps” Uber and Lyft.  Proposition 1 was a response to Austin’s City Counsel ordinance which required Uber and Lyft to continue doing criminal background checks on their drivers.  But in addition to determining background checks based on information such as social security number, name, and driver’s license, it also included fingerprinting.

Under Proposition 1, TNCs submitted more than 25,000 signatures supporting a revised ordinance, which would not include the requirement of fingerprinting for background checks.  This forced the City of Austin to either adopted the proposal or place it on the ballot.  Now that the results are in, 56% to 44%, Austin now plans to go through with their plans of requiring fingerprint background checks of Uber and Lyft drivers.  But their plan comes with a cost.

Since the proposal was first introduced in December 2015, Uber and Lyft have spent nearly $8 million campaigning against the fingerprint requirement.  Uber and Lyft have also threatened to remove their services from Austin, Texas if the requirement was voted in.  The companies have followed through with their threat.

Uber and Lyft announced that they would be ceasing operations Monday, May 9th at 8:00 am.  Frequent users of Uber and Lyft within the Austin city limits were greeted with a prompted message when the application was opened.  Uber users saw a window stating “NO PICKUPS as of May 9th. Due to regulations passed by the City Council, Uber is no longer available within Austin city limits.”

“We hope the City Council will reconsider their ordinance so we can work together to make the streets of Austin a safer place for everyone.”

This has caused a lot of controversy and mixed feelings between residents, drivers of Uber and Lyft, and the companies themselves.  One Uber spokesperson said, “Disappointment does not begin to describe how we feel about shutting down operations in Austin.  We hope the City Council will reconsider their ordinance so we can work together to make the streets of Austin a safer place for everyone.”  A Lyft spokesperson told KUT that they “’want to stay in the city,’ but Austin’s rules ‘don’t allow true ridesharing to operate.’”

Both companies argue that when it comes to fingerprint background checks, the databases are usually out of date and are biased against minorities, “who may have been fingerprinted but never charged with a crime.”  This would cause innocent people to be flagged.  Uber has argued that the fingerprinting system is not 100% accurate.  For example a person’s prints could be smudged and not show up correctly in the system.  “Ultimately, when it comes to understanding what criminal record someone had, I think we do a good job,” said Uber chief security officer, Joe Sullivan.

They also argue that requiring fingerprints would slow down the process of actually hiring drivers, which potentially would lead to fewer part-time drivers.  This would drastically cause an issue when it comes to money.  Because of the additional background requirements, a Lyft spokesperson told CNN that it makes it harder for the part-time drivers to do their jobs and harder for passengers to get a ride.

In response, the city of Austin sees the fingerprint background requirements as an additional step towards ensure the safety of drivers and riders alike.  The requirement is not only exclusive to just Uber and Lyft, it is required for traditional taxi services as well.  Former Austin board President Gina Hinojosa, stated, “We cannot let businesses regulate themselves.  I don’t care how cool or innovative or useful they are.”

It seems as though the City of Austin is well within its powers to require ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, to abide by particular background check procedures.  If the companies do not agree, they are free to take their services elsewhere.  Dan Driscoll, a regular Lyft and Uber user, told USA Today that he does not believe that the fingerprinting system will necessarily improve safety for residents.  The final decision was left in the hands of the voters.  The results on May 7, 2016 show that the voters want these requirements enforced on drivers.

The question now is whether such tactics—such has removal of services—by TNCs (Transportation Network Companies) will work in their favor.

The halt of TNC services in Austin, Texas has affected over 10,000 drivers including Michael Haymond.  Haymond is a Lyft driver and he calls Lyft his “saving grace.”  Working 30 and 50 hour weeks, he earns about $1,000 per week.  Due to the ordinance, Haymond will now have to drive two or three hours to either Dallas or San Antonio to continue working for Lyft on the weekends.

Haymond does not mind the new fingerprint requirement.  However, he believes that the current security and safety measures that Lyft requires are sufficient.  These include “name-based background check, an internal rating system, GPS tracking, and a mentor program.”

Lyft’s competitor, Uber, uses a third party screening system called Checkr to perform background checks on all its prospective drivers.  Before conducting a background check, Uber requires information such as “full name, date of birth, Social Security number, a copy of the driver’s license, vehicle registration, insurance and proof of a completed vehicle inspection.”

In addition to the burden placed on the TNC drivers, there are also concerns about higher traffic volume and higher risks of people driving while impaired.  The question now is whether such tactics—such has removal of services—by TNCs (Transportation Network Companies) will work in their favor.  This is not the first time that Uber and Lyft have withdrawn their services from a city.   Last year Uber and Lyft halted their services in San Antonio over a similar fingerprint requirement.  The ride-hailing companies returned months later when the city changed its regulations to make fingerprinting optional.

Negotiations are still possible between the city and the ride-hailing companies.

As for the city of Austin and their new ordinance, there is still hope.  According to CNN, negotiations are still possible between the city and the ride-hailing companies.

Current drivers and riders of Uber and Lyft remain optimistic that the two will come to a compromise soon, allowing services to start back up again in Austin. Cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles are also considering similar regulations for ride-hailing applications in the future.  It will be interesting to see how future “removal of services” will play out and who will get the upper hand.

Amaka Madu, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus
About Amaka Madu, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus (18 Articles)
Amaka Madu is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Political Science. Following her first year of law school, Amaka interned at the North Carolina Court of Appeals with Honorable Judge Tyson and during the second half of her summer, she participated in the Baylor Academy of the Advocate study abroad program in St. Andrews, Scotland. Amaka also currently serves as Secretary for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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