India rape case: Does Uber know who's driving?

Accusations that an Uber driver raped a woman in New Delhi raises anew questions about the company's driver screening process. 

Tsering Topgyal/AP
India’s opposition Congress party’s women activists shout slogans during a protest after a woman was allegedly raped by a taxi driver in New Delhi, India, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. The Indian capital on Monday banned taxi-booking service Uber after a woman accused one of its drivers of raping her.

After New Delhi banned Uber from operating in the city Monday following rape accusations, the latest in the saga involving the taxi booking service is raising fresh questions about passenger safety and the company's screening process for drivers around the world.

The 32-year-old suspect, who allegedly raped a woman before driving her home, had previously been jailed for rape, though he claims he was acquitted of those charges in 2011.

A New Delhi court ordered Shiv Kumar Yadav held for three days for police questioning over allegations that he raped the finance company employee after being hired to ferry her home from a dinner engagement on Friday night, according to the Associated Press.

The CEO of San Francisco-based Uber, Travis Kalanick, said the company would do "everything to bring the perpetrator to justice and to support the victim and her family in her recovery," the Associated Press reported.

Kalanik also said the company would work with the government to establish clear background checks that are "currently absent in their commercial transportation licensing programs."

It was not immediately clear if Uber itself performed any background checks, nor was it clear whether Mr. Yadav would even have been flagged.

The New Delhi ban is a blow for Uber, which has courted acclamation and controversy around the world with a service based on hailing taxis from a smartphone app. It has faced restrictions in other countries after licensed taxi operators claimed the service was competing unfairly.

The service, which uses private cars rather than licensed cabs, promises a quicker response time than licensed cabs – often less than 10 minutes. Drivers respond using their own Uber-provided smartphones mounted on the dashboard and follow a GPS map to an exact location.

Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the government "strongly condemns this dastardly act" and pledged justice in the case.

Singh is not alone. Cities around the world are calling into question driver screening processes for Uber, as well as similar ride-sharing services including Lyft and Sidecar.

And the India case is just one of many in a series of sexual assault charges Uber has faced recently, including accusations a driver assaulted a passenger in Washington, D.C. in July.

Regulators in California have threatened Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar with letters saying the companies are violating California business law and that the service has misled users on the extent to which it checks drivers' backgrounds, the Monitor previously reported.

The district attorneys said the services performed sub-par background checks on drivers that fail to properly screen out people with past driving violations and criminal offenses.

The companies argue they should not be regulated by government's outdated rules. "The district attorneys are trying to enforce laws written for limousines, in an era before smartphones," a Sidecar spokeswoman said in a statement.

Uber insists that its background checks on drivers are often more rigorous than state or local regulations require for licensed taxis.  For example, Uber says that for each driver in the US, it checks county courthouse records going back 7 years for every county of residence, federal courthouse records going back 7 years, multi-state criminal database going back 7 years, the National Sex Offender Registry screen, Social Security Trace (lifetime), and motor vehicle records (historical and ongoing).

But protests have occurred in cities from Boston to London to Paris, with many taxi drivers complaining Uber violates local taxi rules. They have pointed out the company does not require its drivers to meet proper licensing and safety regulations.

Of course, some licensed taxi drivers in Miami are switching to working for Uber because only 20 percent of each fare goes to Uber (vs. up to 80 percent for regulated taxi companies), and Uber offers drivers and their cars full commercial insurance coverage from the moment they turn on their app and accept a ride. Most taxi drivers have to pay for their own insurance coverage.

Yet, accusations are stacking up, and many are asking why Uber isn't doing a better job screening or policing their drivers.

After driver hit and killed a six-year-old girl in San Francisco, Uber responded he was not working for Uber at the time of the incident, The Daily Beast reported, "sparking something of a debate about what 'working for Uber' really means."

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