Why Massachusetts wants Uber drivers to undergo stricter background checks

During a hearing this week, state lawmakers debated whether ride-sharing services are really tech companies, or simply high-tech cab services, with some legislators arguing fingerprint background checks would protect passengers' safety.

Steven Senne/AP
Taxi drivers sit together during a hearing focused on regulating ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Tuesday.

Debates over the ride-sharing service Uber often boil down to one question: is the company creating ground-breaking technology allowing users to get a ride in minutes from their smartphones, or just offering a high-tech version of traditional cab companies?

In response to a growing number of labor strikes by cab drivers in France, Brazil, and the US, who say ride-sharing companies are threatening their jobs, several state lawmakers in Massachusetts are arguing it’s the latter.

In a packed auditorium at the State House in Boston on Tuesday, surrounded by groups of supporters from Uber wearing blue t-shirts, partisans for competitor Lyft in pink, and taxi drivers in yellow, several lawmakers and the city’s police commissioner made the case that Uber should face further regulation, Boston.com reports.

At a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Financial Services, they argued that ride-sharing services are primarily in the business of providing transportation, not developing technology, and should be regulated similarly to the taxi industry. Ride-sharing services have also been hit with lawsuits alleging that they treat drivers as contractors rather than employees.

“That is what you are,” state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry (D) of Dorchester said during the hearing, according to Boston.com. “These are loopholes that we are trying to close today.”

A bill filed by Senator Forry and Rep. Michael Moran (D) of Brighton would require extensive background checks for Uber drivers, including fingerprinting, as well as prohibiting Uber drivers from picking up passengers at the airport. The bill would also curb so-called “surge pricing,” in which ride-sharing companies increase prices at peak hours when there are fewer drivers available.

The lawmakers say these changes would improve passenger safety, particularly after concerns about sexual assaults by Uber drivers, including one former driver in Boston who was charged with a series of assaults in July.

“At its core, our proposed legislation seeks to prevent dangerous drivers from getting behind the wheel by requiring common-sense checks and balances,” they wrote in a Boston Globe editorial in August. The bill has also been supported by local taxi drivers.

But ride-sharing service Lyft is “concerned” by the background check provisions, a spokeswoman told the Monitor by e-mail.

Instead, the company supports a competing proposal by Gov. Charlie Baker that would put oversight of ride-sharing services under the state’s Department of Public Utilities. It also establishes a statewide background check program, but it does not require fingerprinting.

“The bill takes a common-sense approach to regulating ridesharing,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson says by e-mail, noting that Lyft currently employs its own background check process, including a criminal records check by a third party and an in-person meeting with a mentor-driver.

Ms. Wilson says the background checks required by Forry and Mr. Moran’s proposal would be “duplicative and inefficient.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Meghan Joyce, Uber’s East Coast General Manager argued the bill – which requires drivers to carry their own commercial insurance – would put a regulatory burden on people who drive for the services, not the companies themselves, according to Boston.com.

The meeting also became a referendum of sorts on the safety of ride-sharing, with Boston Police Commissioner William Evans testifying in favor of the stricter background check proposals and former Commissioner Edward Davis testifying on behalf of Uber.

Mr. Evans, who said he was speaking for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, said that while ride-sharing companies have had a positive impact on the city, there need to be stricter background checks – including fingerprinting and periodic vehicle inspection – to ensure passengers’ safety.

Some services, which lawmakers call “transportation network companies” only conduct background checks going back seven years, Evans said, according to MassLive.com.

“That is clearly not enough,” he said.  “I can attest that there are cases being investigated by the BPD where individuals were driving for a TNC and had open, active criminal cases.”

By contrast, Mr. Davis, who was commissioner from 2006 to 2013, said he felt the background check process was sufficient, according to Boston.com.

The 10-hour hearing was variously described as raucous, with boos and hisses erupting from different parts of the crowd as the different sides testified. 

Taxi drivers arguing for more regulation of ride-sharing have often pointed to the high cost of taxi medallions, which they must purchase directly from the city in order to drive. In Boston, medallions have been declining in value because of the growing popularity of services such as Uber and Lyft, CommonWealth magazine reports.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D) of Acton, who co-chairs the financial services committee, said he hoped lawmakers would be able to produce a finished bill during this legislative session, Boston.com reports. Such regulation would put Massachusetts in line with 20 other states that have regulated ride-sharing.

Senator Forry and Representative Moran, who proposed the bill supported by taxi drivers, said while they recognized the economic value and convenience of ride-sharing services for both local drivers and commuters, stricter regulation is needed.

“Innovation must be balanced with public safety and consumer protection considerations, no matter what the industry,” they wrote in the Globe in August. “If common-sense regulations and keeping people safe are going to ‘destroy’ Uber’s business model, then the model needs to change.”

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