Will Uber improve its language on safety? $10 million settlement suggests it will.

California prosecutors alleged that the ride-hailing app misled passengers about its drivers' background checks, which it once called 'industry leading.' 

Jeff Chiu/ AP/ File
Uber driver Karim Amrani sits in his car near the San Francisco International Airport (July 2015). Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando, will cover 20 percent of any Uber ride that starts or finishes within its city limits.

The advertising around Uber's rides, and its driver background checks, might soon improve, at least in California.

On Thursday, the popular ride-hailing service paid $10 million in a settlement over allegations from prosecutors that Uber's background checks for drivers were not up to par. Prosecutors said that Uber will have to pay an additional $15 million if the company does not comply with the terms of the settlement over the next two years.

"The result we achieved today goes well beyond its impact on Uber," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a written statement. "It sends a clear message to all businesses, and to startups in particular, that in the quest to quickly obtain market share, laws designed to protect consumers cannot be ignored." 

Unlike the background checks required for taxi drivers, Uber's process does not include fingerprint checks. Instead, Uber uses criminal database searches and files from motor vehicle departments to determine drivers' conviction history.

The California lawsuit was filed in 2014, when prosecutors first contended that Uber's background checks were below the industry norm. Investigations revealed at least 25 incidents when Uber cleared drivers who had criminal records, including a convicted murderer. Limited background checks that rely on criminal databases, not fingerprinting, can fail to uncover important details about would-be drivers, according to a report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.  

Uber's background checks are limited to only seven years of criminal history, and are frequently restricted in the county and state they search. By comparison, the fingerprint checks run by taxi companies in California are run through a national database, which contains over 100 years of criminal records running across multiple jurisdictions.  

"We're glad to put this case behind us and excited to redouble our efforts serving riders and drivers across the state of California," Uber said in a statement. The company, which did not admit wrongdoing, has argued that it already met safety requirements, such as renaming its former "safe ride fee" as a "booking fee." It no longer calls its policies "industry leading," after settling a separate lawsuit in February for $28.5 million. 

Settlements like these may lead to improved safety for other ride-hailing apps, too. As part of the settlement agreement, Uber will no longer make claims about being the "safest drive on the road," and will reduce its ride circulation in California to airports where it is allowed to operate. Last year, Lyft, one of Uber’s biggest competitors, was faced with a similar settlement. As part of that case, Lyft no longer makes claims about the superiority of its background check process.       

Uber has been followed by several allegations of its drivers assaulting passengers. In late March, a San Diego-area Uber driver accused of sexually assaulting a female passenger while on duty was arrested. The Kalamazoo shooter charged with killing six people while also taking rides as an Uber driver in February told investigators that the app was controlling his behavior.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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