After several years of tumultuous debate, the big questions surrounding the basic legality of ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber have essentially been resolved. In most major American cities, we now are free to pull out our smartphones and summon a ride to karaoke night without much hindrance.
But there are still some looming issues in state and local transportation policy, particularly over whether ridesharing companies should be required to run their drivers through federal fingerprint background checks before hiring them. In just the last year, we’ve seen heated debates over this question in Austin, Houston, Boston, Maryland and New York. The latest battleground is Connecticut, where the state legislature faces calls from the taxi and limousine commissions to include mandatory fingerprinting as part of a larger ridesharing regulation bill.
Proponents argue that recent allegations of assault by Uber drivers are evidence that the existing private background checks run by Uber and Lyft are insufficient for public safety. They argue that the federal fingerprinting systems used by taxicabs are a more comprehensive check on previous criminal behavior and that we should force ridesharing companies to meet the same criteria. While this might, at first glance, appear to be common sense, underlying this argument are a number of misconceptions about the effectiveness of fingerprinting as a background-check system and the relative safety of taxis.
If critics are right and ridesharing really is less safe than taxis, we should expect to see that reflected somewhere in the crime statistics. However, academic research indicates precisely the opposite. A 2016 study from Western Carolina University found that, after Uber entered a city, there was a corresponding decrease in assaults, in addition to decreases in DUIs and vehicular homicides. In addition to lowering crime, ridesharing options also lead to better service. Analysis from The Atlantic even suggests that, after Uber entered the Chicago market, the number of complaints filed against taxi drivers went down steadily, due to the increased competition.
This should not be especially surprising when you consider the incentives faced by ridesharing drivers. For someone who wants to cause harm to another, being a driver for a platform like Uber or Lyft would be a terrible career choice. During every trip, from point A to point B, both the driver and passenger are tracked by smartphone-enabled GPS. The precise route, exact pick-up and drop-off times, any unusual stops – all this and more is tracked and recorded while on the job.
By contrast, the federal background check system is notoriously unreliable, as a 2013 NELP study revealed: “50 percent of the FBI’s records fail to include information on the final disposition of the case… For example, one third of felony arrests do not result in conviction and many others are reduced to misdemeanors.”
The report goes on to point out how troubling this is when viewed in light of the racial disparities in arrest records. “African Americans are especially disadvantaged by the faulty records because people of color are consistently arrested at rates greater than their representation in the general population, and large numbers of those arrests never lead to conviction. For example, African Americans were more than four times as likely as whites to appeal an inaccurate FBI record under the federal port worker security clearance program.”
While there may be a better case for mandatory fingerprinting for taxi drivers, who do not have the robust tracking and deterrence mechanisms that ridesharing apps enforce, there are larger questions about how difficult we want to make it for ex-convicts to be re-integrated into society. Perhaps there are less restrictive ways to screen candidates while still maintaining appropriate levels of public safety. Ultimately, we should be encouraging taxis to operate more like Uber and Lyft, not the other way around.
When tragedy strikes, it is tempting to grasp at whatever means are available to prevent future harm, but we must remain clear-eyed about the relevant tradeoffs. Mandatory fingerprint background checks don’t appear to provide any additional safety benefits for ridesharing. What they will do is increase costs, decrease the number of people who can work and inadvertently rely on a broken and discriminatory hiring system.
Caleb Watney is a technology policy associate with the R Street Institute, a conservative nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.