Legislature holds public hearing to discuss ride-hailing background checks

Catherine Marfin

During an open discussion Wednesday morning about the future of ride-hailing services in Austin, the Business and Industry Committee of the Texas House of Representatives heard differing views about regulations for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

The meeting came just a few weeks after Proposition 1 — a measure that would overturn a bill that imposed ride-hailing regulations such as city-run fingerprint background checks and identification of cars with a company-specific emblem — failed in Austin, prompting Uber and Lyft to cease services in the city.

Led by committee chairman René Oliveira, members heard testimonies from national, state and local representatives, including members from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Uber and Lyft, city council members from Austin, Dallas and the surrounding communities and representatives from taxicab services.

Supporters of the fingerprint-based background check argued that government regulated security measures led to safer rides and more qualified drivers. Representatives from Uber and Lyft argued that fingerprint-based background checks force their companies to comply with “outdated regulations,” making it harder for drivers to get approved and provide their services.

Sarfraz Maredia, general manager for Uber in Texas, spoke to committee members in detail about the background check and screening processes Uber drivers undergo before being approved.
Maredia outlined the pre-screening method for drivers, in which an individual’s driving history and motor vehicle record are reviewed in detail, emphasizing that most fingerprint-based background checks do not include these types of records.
Maredia argued Uber and Lyft should be allowed to run their own background checks and screening processes, citing some shortcomings of fingerprint-based methods.

“We have problems with using an FBI database as source of criminal records,” Maredia said. “First, the Washington Post reported that 51 percent of all cases lack dispositions like charges and arrests. This disproportionately affects black people because they are arrested at a higher rate. Second, more than 90 percent of people who failed our screening process failed because of driving history — a fingerprint background check couldn’t catch that.”

Rena Davis, public policy manager for Lyft, also spoke to committee members about the benefits of Lyft’s independently-run background checks, referring to Lyft features that are similar to services Uber provides.

“We have a number of safeguards to ensure safe rides,” Davis said. “We check drivers based on their social security number and against national databases that check down to local levels. We utilize technology to provide safety features like GPS tracking, user rating, driver picture and the license plate, make and model of our cars.”

Committee Chairman Oliveira asked both Davis and Maredia if they had any statistical data showing that their companies provided more safety than traditional transportation methods, but neither could provide specific numbers to support their arguments.

Committee members also heard from Ed Kargbo, president of Yellow Cab Austin, who argued in favor of fingerprint-based background checks for both cab and ride-hailing drivers, calling them “the gold standard.”
“Fingerprint background checks have been encouraged and endorsed by law enforcement officials repeatedly,” Kargbo said. “There is some bias when these independent companies perform their own background checks … as opposed to having law enforcement officials, who are entrusted to protect the public, participate as an unbiased third.”

The committee meeting lasted a total of six hours, with testimonies regarding possible compromises between local governments and ride-hailing services.

“We have to find a balance,” committee chairman Oliveira said. “We will continue to look at other states and see what is working and what isn’t, and see if the state needs to get involved in this issue or if we should let individual communities decide that for themselves.”