Are Uber and Lyft Doing Enough to Keep Criminals from Getting Behind the Wheel?

After several high-profile incidents of drivers attacking their passengers, critics are saying that the ridesharing companies skimp on background checks.

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Oct 9 2014, 12:15pm

Photo via Flickr user Joakim Formo

On New Year’s Eve, as 2013 became 2014, Syed Muzaffar, a driver in San Francisco for ridesharing company Uber, struck and killed six-year-old Sofia Liu as she and her family were walking across the street. Muzaffar, who had a previous conviction for reckless driving, was arrested, and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Uber.

In June, Daveea Whitmire, another Uber driver from San Francisco with a criminal record, was charged with punching his passenger after the two got into a dispute. That same month, an Uber driver in the LA area allegedly kidnapped a woman and took her to a hotel in order to sexually assault her. Then there was Reshad Ahmad Chakari, a 32-year-old Uber driver in Washington, DC, who was charged with second-degree sexual abuse for raping a passenger in July. And just two weeks ago, in Florida, a man was arrested for groping a woman he picked up while working as an Uber driver.

And then, of course, there’s the now famous incident in which Patrick Karajah, a 26-year-old Uber driver based in San Francisco, struck a passenger with a hammer after a dispute over directions, leaving the victim hospitalized for days and at risk of losing his eye.

Ridesharing giants Uber and Lyft have attracted a lot of media attention for expanding exponentially in cities across America (Uber has an international presence as well) and for getting into fierce price wars with each other, along the way cutting their drivers’ pay and trying to sabotage one another. With such a high profile, it’s no surprise that incidents of drivers (who are not technically employees) committing crimes have made headlines. And drivers for ordinary taxi services certainly commit crimes as well. The question is, could some of these assaults been avoided if ridesharing companies simply did a better job performing background checks?

District attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles recently sent letters to Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar alleging that transportation network companies, or TNCs, are a threat to the public and routinely violate California law. Among other things, the DAs accused TNCs of misleading their customers by saying they screen out drivers who have been convicted of criminal offenses.

Though regulations differ from city to city, taxi drivers are generally fingerprinted by public agencies and get their names run through police and FBI databases to ensure they have clean records. Ridesharing companies, however, employ private agencies that conduct checks more cheaply and quicker—resulting, critics say, in drivers who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. 

A Lyft representative told me the company uses the firm Sterling BackCheck, which screens drivers using a social security number trace, a county criminal record check, an enhanced nationwide criminal search, and a Department of Justice sex offender search. Uber didn’t return emails concerning the name of its private firm, but it charges a safe-ride fee of $1 for “an industry-leading background check process, regular motor vehicle checks [and] driver safety education,” according to its website.

Dave Sutton, a spokesperson for the Who’s Driving You campaign—an initiative to inform the public about what the group calls “unregulated taxi services”—says that the companies are legally permitted to skimp on background checks because they claim to be platforms for connecting independent drivers and riders.

Emme, a driver who works for both Lyft and Uber and runs the @Rideshare_in_LA Twitter account, says she knows drivers who were deactivated presumably because of dirt that turned up in background checks, but others say it’s very rare.

“I actually don’t know anyone who has ever been denied,” says Harry Campbell, who runs the blog the Rideshare Guy. Neither did other Uber and Lyft drivers I spoke with.

The efficacy of their background check systems is something that the city council in Austin, Texas, will consider as it weighs legalizing ridesharing companies. The city plans to perform an audit on the checks in place at both Lyft and Uber, according to Gordon Derr of the Austin Transportation Department, who said that if the checks are foolproof, the city may implement the cheaper and faster systems for its regular taxi services as well.

Whether or not these checks work is besides the point for those who have been victimized by their rideshare drivers and are trying to figure out who is liable for their pain and suffering.

Roberto Chicas, the victim of the hammer attack, will probably sue both his driver and Uber, but he’ll likely face an uphill battle in getting the company to pay up. Amanda Payton, an attorney at Rasansky Law Firm, says that since drivers are classified as independent contractors, a civil suit against Uber isn’t likely to be successful—and that’s the problem.

“There has to be a way to hold the company responsible for the people it chooses to put behind its vehicles,” says Payton.

Follow Taylor Prewitt on Twitter.

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