Md. Uber and Lyft drivers should be fingerprinted

Op-ed: Uber and Lyft should not get a Md. waiver exempting drivers from fingerprint background checks.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is charged with keeping passengers safe — that's why Uber and Lyft should not get a special waiver exempting their drivers from fingerprint background checks.

Across the country, a steady stream of news reports concern Uber drivers sexually and physically assaulting passengers. In Maryland this past May, an Uber driver with an extensive criminal record — including a conviction for armed robbery — was charged with attempted murder in connection with an alleged attack on two Montgomery County police officers. Maryland Uber drivers have also been accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Frederick, and kidnapping and assaulting a passed-out passenger in Prince George's County. The Prince George's County incident reportedly includes videotape of the Uber driver carrying the young woman's limp body over his shoulder into a motel room.

Clearly, Uber's driver screening is not keeping Maryland passengers safe.

Other states continue to tighten up background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers. This year, Uber and Lyft's home state of California passed a law prohibiting the companies from hiring violent offenders and sex offenders. Massachusetts recently passed legislation requiring a second state-run background check in addition to Uber and Lyft's name-based private background checks.

Uber is threatening to leave Maryland should the PSC implement fingerprinting. This is nothing new. Uber has repeatedly threatened to leave Maryland and never done so. In 2013, Uber argued it wasn't subject to the Maryland PSC's regulation and said it would leave if regulations were imposed. The PSC did find Uber was subject to its regulations, and Uber didn't leave the state. In 2014, Uber again threatened to leave Maryland if state legislators did not pass favorable legislation. Legislators did not, and, again, Uber didn't leave Maryland.

Yes, Uber did leave Austin, Texas, when residents voted to reject the notion that it should be exempt from fingerprinting safety rules. After Uber left Austin, numerous Transportation Network Companies jumped in to fill the vacancy, employing former Uber drivers to do so. Today, Uber is meeting with Austin city officials to work its way back into operating in the city.

Many industry observers have noted: Uber can't continue to leave major cities and states when it doesn't get the regulation it wants. The continuing trend is toward tighter, not looser, driver background checks. Abandoning major markets doesn't make financial sense for a corporation that lost $2 billion in 2016.

Here's what truly matters to Uber: Maryland has an enormously lucrative market. Maryland has three times the number of drivers Uber had in Austin, and the combined Baltimore-Washington area has 10 times Austin's population. Leaving Maryland means disrupting smooth-functioning operations in nearby Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. Finally, two Maryland counties are slated to be initial sites for Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) disability contracts Uber is eagerly pursuing.

Uber needs Maryland's enormous market to ultimately operate at a profit.

Why does Uber oppose fingerprinting? It believes the fingerprinting process slows driver sign-ups. Uber drivers don't make much money. So, 50 percent quit after six months and 11 percent stop after one month. Because of this churn, Uber wants to replace these lost drivers as quickly as possible.

But if passenger safety is a hindrance to Uber's business growth, it's Uber's business model that should change — not Maryland law.

The question is: Who wouldn't sign up with Uber because of fingerprinting? Fingerprint background checks deter both criminals and criminal activity. Law enforcement experts state that when individuals undergo fingerprint-based criminal background checks, the process creates a significant deterrent to future criminal activity.

The need for fingerprinting is not theoretical. California's top prosecutors found a convicted murderer who signed up to drive for Uber simply by using a fake name. Fingerprinting would have prevented this.

Maryland's regulators should balance Uber and Lyft's business considerations with protecting consumers. They shouldn't abandon their responsibility to Maryland passengers.

William Scalzi is president of the Rockville-based Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association; his email is bill@metrotaxict.com.

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