Uber expands driver background checks

More than a month after a driver working for Uber hit and killed a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco, the car service app company says it will do more thorough background checks on its drivers.

San Francisco-based Uber, a software company that matches passengers to private cars using a smartphone app, and has been widely embraced worldwide by people weary of hailing a taxi on the street, announced Wednesday that anyone applying to become a driver for UberX –the company’s lower-cost ride service, which uses compact and hybrid cars — in the U.S. will undergo federal and county background checks on top of the Multi-State Criminal Database check.

Uber says it has an agreement with Hirease, a national provider of background checks. Until now, Uber had used only the Multi-State Criminal Database, which compiles records from more than 40 states, to perform driver background checks. But Uber said in a company blog post that it wasn’t thorough enough, as some states and counties do not report to the database.

“Similarly, a check relying on the Multi-State Criminal Database may miss records that only exist in the federal database. In our experience, records appearing in one database but not showing up in another is a rare occurrence, but we consider this situation unacceptable all the same,” Uber said.

The company’s safety standards came under scrutiny following the New Year’s Eve accident when a driver for UberX hit and killed 6-year-old Sophia Liu San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The driver, 57-year-old Syed Muzaffar of Union City, was not carrying an Uber passenger at the time, but was logged onto the Uber smartphone app and waiting for customers, according to police. The victim’s parents have sued Uber, claiming the company is responsible for the girl’s death. Uber expressed sympathy for the tragedy, but did not take any responsibility.

The public scrutiny, however, was enough to push Uber to take a harder line on background checks. For Uber’s other services — the black car, SUV, taxi and luxury car rides — Uber leaves the background check up to the state and local jurisdictions who “often perform background checks as part of their commercial licensing processes,” the company said.

Uber’s new policy doesn’t address driver training, which many critics say ride-sharing falls short on. Nor has Uber publicly responded to criticisms that its smartphone app, which all drivers must use, poses a distraction on the road, making Uber cars a threat to pedestrians and other drivers.

Ride-sharing companies Lyft and Sidecar also make mobile apps that their drivers use to connect with passengers and process fares.

The legal and PR messes haven’t slowed Uber’s tremendous growth, however. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Uber outlined its expansion plans for China, where it will compete with car-hailing apps from Alibaba and Internet startups, and have to maneuver government regulations. China is just the lastest — Uber has been adding a city almost daily for the past week, including Dubai, Pittsburgh, Tucson, Manila and Milwaukee. It also continues to grow in its home state, adding service in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Fresno last week.

Stock image from borderlessnewsandviews.com

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (225 Posts)

Heather Somerville is a business reporter covering venture capital and startups for the Bay Area News Group.