Uber, Lyft could face fingerprint-based background checks

Forrest Milburn

The future of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies continuing to provide services in Austin is uncertain as a fingerprint-based background check ordinance is set to go into effect on Feb. 1.

Austin City Council members voted to increase regulations at its Dec. 17 meeting. After nearly five hours of debate, council members voted 9-2 to increase regulations — including fingerprint-based background checks — on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft.

“It is the intent and desire of this community to have drivers that are fingerprinted,” Mayor Steve Adler said during the December meeting.

Originally, the council’s proposed regulations were set to be mandatory once in effect, prompting Uber and Lyft officials to threaten to leave the city if fingerprint background checks and other regulations were approved.

Since ride-hailing companies have left cities, such as San Antonio, after facing new regulations, Austin City Council members drafted an updated framework of regulations that establishes implementation dates for compliance with the regulations. The ordinance also uses incentives to try and push drivers to get background checks and companies to hire drivers with approved background checks.

Council members in support of the ordinance argued the updated regulations were a compromise they believed the companies could support.

Although the ordinance is set to go in effect in a few weeks, the issue hasn’t been resolved at City Hall. Since the December council meeting, opponents of the ordinance have organized a group called Ridesharing Works for Austin, which is currently attempting to collect at least 20,000 valid signatures to force the council to put the issue up to the voters on the November ballot.

“Hundreds of thousands of Austinites open the Uber app each week, either to get a ride or make a little extra money,” Uber spokeswoman Debbie Hancock said in a statement Monday. “We hope the Mayor and City Council keep them in mind as they move forward with regulating ridesharing.”

Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, who voted against the ordinance in December, argue that the city benefits from ride-hailing companies as they provide late night, cost-effective alternatives to drunken driving or calling a taxi.

Biology junior Michelle Russell, who uses ride-hailing services because she has no car, said she believes the companies are a better alternative to taxis. 

Supporters of the ordinance argue the ride-hailing companies would not be burdened by the regulatory requirements outlined in the ordinance, especially since the regulations more closely match taxi regulations in City code.

Textiles and apparel sophomore Natalie Arriaga, who has used Uber as a safer alternative to driving, said she would feel even safer if she knew her driver passed a background check.

“I don’t see how they’re burdened,” Arriaga said. “I think [the regulations] make me feel a whole lot safer, knowing that if anything were to happen, they’d be able to find this person and take whatever further action was needed.”