The Maryland Public Service Commission approved an alternative screening process that would allow Uber and Lyft to continue operating in the state without conducting fingerprint-based background checks of their drivers.
The decision Thursday averted a showdown with California-based Uber — which had threatened to leave Maryland — and represented a victory in the ride-hailing companies’ battles against regulations that would have jeopardized their ability to maintain tens of thousands of drivers in the state.
Uber and Lyft had argued that the electronic checks they use, supplemented by court records, are as thorough, or better than the law-enforcement-backed methods suggested by regulators. But the commission noted in its ruling that “neither fingerprinting-based nor commercial background checks are completely comprehensive and accurate.” It did acknowledge, however, that each check used by the ride-hailing companies “involves extensive efforts to identify criminal history, are supplemented by ongoing safety protocols and updates, and include unique and emerging methods of authenticating identities.”
The state-approved process incorporates the ride-hailing companies’ current methods but requires additional provisions, including annual rescreening, auditing requirements, a 60-day written notice of any significant changes to the screening process, written certifications of their drivers’ identities, and a three-day reporting requirement for new arrests and convictions. Uber and Lyft already adhere to some of the requirements in Maryland, including annual rescreening, and using accredited background check providers.
In separate statements, Uber and Lyft lauded the decision reached by four commissioners.
“This decision ensures that tens of thousands of hard-working residents continue to have fair access to flexible work opportunities and the reliable transportation options millions of Marylanders and visitors have come to expect and rely on,” said Tom Hayes, Uber’s regional general manager.
Lyft applauded the decision but left open the possibility that it may seek further changes to the requirements in the future.
“While we will continue to work with the Commission on certain aspects of the rules, we appreciate their recognition that Lyft’s modern background check process is comprehensive and rigorous,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
The Rockville-based Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, which supported fingerprinting, said Uber and Lyft’s checks do not go far enough — even with the new provisions. The group represents about a thousand taxicab, limousine, for-hire, paratransit and non-emergency driving services, and has sought to expose the problems presented by lax regulations in the ride-hailing industry.
“The fact remains that the only way to identify an individual is through their fingerprint,” said Dave Sutton, spokesman for “Who’s Driving You?”, an initiative of the organization, which lists offenses committed by ride-hailing drivers on its website. “Uber can hire experts and generate persuasive testimony but in practice they are sloppy. ... In the Maryland hearing, they’ve hired experts to create convincing sounding data but the reality is passengers are being hurt.”
Sutton pointed to a lawsuit filed in California that alleged Uber had misled the public with claims it had “best in the industry” background checks. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who was part of the lawsuit, has said screenings that omit fingerprint scanning are “completely worthless,” and Uber agreed to pay up to $25 million in fines and stop referring to its background checks as superior to industry competitors.
The commission said it believed that the alternative background checks it approved were “as comprehensive and accurate as the fingerprint-based background check.”
Under the new rules, screenings would encompass a driver’s entire adult life — rather than the seven years currently required by Uber and Lyft. (Uber says it already abides by this requirement in Maryland.) Drivers would also be required to return their Uber and Lyft decals if their accounts became deactivated.
A spokeswoman for the commission said the new checks elevated electronic screening to the level of fingerprinting by addressing concerns about identity verification, the comprehensiveness of record searches, and timely follow-up requirements.
The Commission, which regulates ride-hailing in the state, conducted three days of hearings on the issue in November. Uber said then it would have to cease operating in the state, taking its 30,000 drivers with it, if fingerprint-based background checks were enacted.
The companies had argued that fingerprinting was a costly and burdensome requirement on drivers and disproportionately targeted minorities, who were more likely to be wrongfully flagged for offenses. The companies also argued that state and FBI fingerprint databases presented an incomplete portrait of a person’s criminal history, with records that often didn’t note the final dispositions of cases.
But state regulators said electronic checks by firms Checkr and Sterling Infosystems, the services used by Uber and Lyft, were inadequate. They pointed to several examples of sexual assault and other violent crime committed by Uber drivers.
“There are three major areas of concern,” Christopher T. Koermer, director of transportation for the Public Service Commission, said in his hearing testimony. “[Uber’s] and Lyft’s processes for ensuring that the applicant is not providing false identifying information . . . the limitations on the time period covered by a review of the applicant’s record and . . . the lack of criminal activity updates.”
Proponents of fingerprinting argued that Uber’s screening methods allowed violent criminals to fall through the cracks, citing a driver who was arrested on attempted-murder charges in May after he allegedly tried to shoot two police officers in Gaithersburg, Md., and several incidents involving gun violence. It wasn’t clear, however, that fingerprint-based tests would have helped. In one case, in which an Uber driver was arrested on charges that he killed six on a shooting rampage in Kalamazoo, Mich., the 45-year-old had no previous criminal record.
Maryland was not the first market that Uber threatened to leave over fingerprinting. In May, Uber and Lyft ceased ride-hailing in Austin over the requirement; Uber has also threatened to yank its service from Houston if a new fingerprinting requirement isn’t reversed.
Maryland has three times as many Uber drivers as the Austin area, the biggest market that Uber has left. If it had pulled out of Maryland, the ripple effect would have been felt across the region, affecting service in Baltimore, Annapolis and part of the D.C. region.
Uber and Lyft have 10 days to formally respond to the commission’s modifications.