California regulators give thumbs down to Uber, Lyft fingerprint background checks

In a win for Uber and Lyft, state regulators late Wednesday said they don’t want to force the ride-hailing companies to fingerprint their drivers — rejecting the idea that the added screening would make passengers safer.

The 35-page proposed decision by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates ride-hailing companies in the state, won’t become final until it’s voted on and approved by the entire commission — possibly as early as Nov. 9.

“Although we recognize the public’s familiarity with fingerprinting, we do not see that a demonstratively greater level of safety would be added over and above the current background-check protocols,” Commissioner Liane Randolph wrote.

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Lyft cheered the decision, which the company has spent years fighting for.

“We appreciate the CPUC’s thoughtful deliberation on this issue and the supportive comments from a wide range of experts who helped to inform the decision,” a spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “Today’s proposal is a recognition of Lyft’s strong background check process which prioritizes public safety without limiting innovation or economic opportunity.”

Uber had a similar response.

“We appreciate the Commission’s thoughtful review of this important issue,” a spokesman wrote. “We are encouraged by their proposed decision which promotes both public safety and economic opportunity.”

Efforts to require fingerprint background checks for Lyft and Uber drivers largely have been spearheaded by the taxi industry — taxi drivers generally are required to give their fingerprints before they can drive, and had protested state officials giving ride-hailing app companies what they perceived to be an unfair advantage by letting them forgo the checks.

But demands for the fingerprint checks on Uber and Lyft drivers mounted in recent months, particularly in the wake of reports of ride-hailing drivers sexually assaulting or harassing passengers. For example, a lawsuit filed last month accuses an Uber driver of making inappropriate comments to his 16-year-old passenger.

And Uber has faced other safety complaints. Last year the company settled a lawsuit in which the district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles had accused Uber of misleading the public about its safety standards. Another class-action lawsuit took issue with Uber collecting a “safe rides fee” from customers.

“Disappointed the CPUC is neglecting to protect riders by requiring the safest form of driver screening for Uber and Lyft,” Dave Sutton, of the taxi industry-sponsored campaign Who’s Driving You? wrote in an emailed statement regarding Wednesday’s proposal. “California lawmakers and consumers should remain aware there’s a time-tested and superior form of background check: fingerprinting.”

But commissioners on Wednesday said fingerprint checks aren’t the answer.

For one thing, people who submit fingerprints via the popular Live Scan service aren’t required to show photo ID, the commission wrote. And criminal records, even those attached to a fingerprint, are only as accurate and up-to-date as the information provided by local courts and law enforcement agencies. When there are errors in those records, requiring a fingerprint can actually exacerbate those resulting delays, the commission wrote.

For the general public, though, it appears the answer wasn’t so clear-cut. The commission has received 1,817 comments on the issue since June 2016 — 48 percent of respondents were in favor of fingerprint background checks, and 49 percent were opposed. About 2 percent said “it depends.”

Photo: Erika Ocampo-Fields, criminalist with the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, shows how an Automated Biometric Identification System or ABIS is used with fingerprint files at the Contra Costa County crime lab in Martinez, Calif., on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. This is one of many new automated systems allowing the CCC crime lab to communicate more efficiently with surrounding agencies. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)


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