Uber safety dispute shows balance between personal choice, regulations

By Dug Begley
Houston Chronicle.

The “creepo” who agreed to pick up Mel Smith about a month ago from a Midtown bar probably never got a chance to put her location into the Uber app.

“I always look at the picture,” Smith said of the photo that pops up when she requests a ride via Uber, which connects drivers with passengers looking for a lift.

Smith canceled the ride quickly enough that she didn’t have to pay. She waited a few minutes, opened the app and requested a ride again. This time Smith got a driver more to her liking — a woman — and made it safely to her Washington Avenue apartment.

Like thousands of others who hop into cars with Uber’s “driver partners” every day around the country, Smith was entering an emerging realm characterized not just by changing technology, but by challenges to traditional notions of the role of government in regulating consumer services like paid rides. Surging demand is outpacing enforcement as questions arise about the adequacy of company oversight, and Uber clashes with regulators in city after city.

With the new, smartphone-based services, drivers and passengers said, the relationship between the person behind the wheel and the person paying for the trip is unique: “It’s just you and them,” one driver said, asking not to be identified. “That’s a big level of trust.”

Accommodating the model of Uber and competitors such as Lyft is proving to be a tumultuous process for state and local governments, experts say.

“It is a disruptive technology and we are in a period in which we are trying to examine how these companies should be regulated,” said Janice Griffith, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

The companies’ disputes with officials in many cities and states — including Houston, San Antonio and Texas — focus on how best to regulate a new way of providing paid rides. For example, the companies have pressed for their type of background check, which relies on Social Security information, while some cities demand a fingerprint-based system.

“If they would just start doing that, it would solve a lot of the issues,” said Jeanne Christensen, a partner at the New York law firm Wigdor LLP. The firm represents women who say they were assaulted by Uber drivers in Boston, Detroit and New Delhi.

More scrutiny urged
The debate heated up in Houston and Austin last week after a Houston driver, Duncan Eric Burton, was charged April 1 with sexually abusing a drunken female passenger he took to his apartment. After Burton’s arrest, city officials were angered because he never sought a city-issued permit allowing him to operate as a so-called transportation network company driver, yet still was allowed on Uber’s online platform.

Passenger safety is a key issue in the discussions of how best to regulate the new paid-ride companies.

“I think societies make decisions about where they want to put extra filters on,” said Deborah Hersman, president of the nonprofit National Safety Council. “School bus drivers face greater scrutiny, for example.”

Truck drivers and drivers for public transit agencies also undergo fingerprint background checks, Hersman said, because of a consensus that is in everyone’s best interest to screen them more thoroughly.

Christensen said repeated incidents have demonstrated that the less expensive background check used by Uber puts riders at risk.

“Everyone likes the service, the concept is great, but it is not working out great,” she said, adding that additional checks and in-person interviews of drivers would probably ward off some less-desirable applicants and give the company more scrutiny of its drivers.

Local officials in many cities agree. During a December news conference announcing a consumer protection lawsuit filed by district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon called Uber’s background check “completely worthless.
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The company has declined comment on many issues surrounding the Houston incident, but has repeatedly said it stands by its safety standards.

“We’ll continue innovating, refining, and working diligently to ensure we’re doing everything we can to make Uber the safest experience on the road,” the company says on its website.

Christensen isn’t convinced. As the company expands to more cities worldwide, she said, she believes the problem will only get worse until public perception turns.

“The problem is people like the service, so the word is not getting out,” Christensen said.

Fingerprint system
No reliable national or local figures are available to assess whether crimes against passengers are more common in trips provided by Uber and its competitors than in conventional taxis and limousines. Most cities do not break down whether sexual abuse or assault occurs in a private vehicle or one for hire.

Alleged assaults by Uber drivers, however, receive far greater media attention than accusations against cab drivers. In the past year, drivers in San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Orlando and Philadelphia have been accused of inappropriately touching riders or molesting them. Many of the incidents have a similar pattern, where the rider is alone and the driver takes advantage of them while they are inebriated, asleep or in a vulnerable position such as on a freeway where escape is unlikely.

Not all of the accusations have led to charges. Authorities in Chicago last week dropped charges against a driver accused of touching a female passenger while she was drunk after audio surfaced proving the woman was coherent and talking to the driver when the incident took place.

In all of the reported cases, according to media accounts, the company has immediately suspended the driver from operating on the system once the allegations surface. In Houston, Burton was removed from the system April 2 when Uber learned of his arrest related to the alleged Jan. 27 sexual assault.

Uber officials have not responded to multiple inquiries about how Burton was able to drive for Uber even though he lacked a city permit and had been released from federal prison in 2012 after serving 14 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. His recent prison term would have barred him for obtaining a city permit, Houston officials said, although he could appeal.

Four Houston Uber drivers interviewed last week said Burton’s crimes reflected badly on the entire local operation. All have valid permits to operate in the city, and three of the four also have the proper permit to pick up and drop off riders at Houston’s two airports. All requested anonymity, saying they feared they would be dropped from Uber’s system if they were identified.

The four agreed that some drivers do not obey the rules and the city should have a role in determining who gets to drive.

“I wouldn’t put my teenage daughter in a car with some of these guys,” one driver said.

The same driver said he had no issue with the fingerprint-based background check requirement imposed by the city, saying it was probably the best way to weed out criminals.

“Do I like going to the courthouse and getting a warrant check? No,” he said. “But I understand.”
Riders’ responsibility

But the drivers said passengers need to accept a measure of responsibility as well. Two of the drivers said passengers routinely tell them they cancel trips until they find a driver whose profile they are comfortable with. Women traveling late at night are especially vigilant, one driver observed.

Moreover, Houston’s capacity to enforce its standards is limited. The city’s regulatory affairs department has five inspectors and one supervisor who enforce rules on taxis, shuttles and transportation network companies such as Uber, said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the city’s Regulatory Affairs Department.

Cottingham said the city is hiring an additional five inspectors and a supervisor as soon as possible because of the increased demand caused by Uber. The positions are funded in part by the permit and license fees associated with the new drivers.

Even a staff of 12 inspectors means the companies will have to be proactive to get drivers to comply. Supporters and skeptics differ on the level of Uber’s interest in providing safety versus making a profit.

Complicating matters is that technology companies, and the business world in general, tend to move faster than government agencies.

Uber, through word of mouth and aggressive marketing, can get up and running in a city in a matter of days. Houston officials took more than a year to craft regulations making it possible for the company to ferry passengers legally in Houston.

Griffith, the Boston law professor, said the marketplace and public sentiment will play a major role in determining the rules.

“What might happen is the public demands greater regulation to ensure safety, but they are going to have to pay for it,” Griffith said.

The next few years will likely be pivotal, she said. Governments will set a standard and the companies will have to meet public demand for a safe trip. In Houston, that might take more than Uber hitting the streets.

“You might find competition between different ride-service companies,” Griffith said. “One company might say they are going to have greater safety practices.”

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