Yesterday saw an outcry in China against ride-sharing app DiDi after the rape and murder of a 20 year-old young woman who used the service for a ride.
However, DiDi is hardly alone in its problems protecting passengers against violence by its drivers. In fact, the Uber and Lyft apps arguably have a track record that is much worse. And yet both companies continue to use flimsy background checks that don't measure up to taxi driver standards.
Around the world, 51 reported deaths have been tied to passengers of Uber and Lyft services since 2014. Since 2013, 101 physical assaults and 384 sexual assaults have been alleged against Uber and Lyft drivers. Eighteen passengers have reported being kidnapped or held against their will by their Uber drivers since 2014.
The process to become a cab driver is much more rigorous than driving for Uber or Lyft.
To become a taxi driver in New York City, for example, it will cost you between $470-$620 and the choice between an 80-hour course or a 24-hour course in an approved taxi school. The process puts a dent in your wallet and that doesn't include the Taxi Limousine Commission scrutinizing any past criminal history, outstanding child support or debts, and other questionable behavior.
That makes it easy to see why so many drivers are flocking to ride-sharing services instead of traditional cabs.
To become an Uber driver, the stipulations are more lax. You must be at least 21 years-old, driven for at least a year if you're under 23, have a 4-door vehicle not older than 10 years, car insurance in your name, a valid license, valid plates, a social security number, and pass a background and driving record check. Lyft's requirements are similar.
In terms of safety, the biggest problem is the less expensive background checks that both Uber and Lyft use for their drivers.
Uber has long aggressively lobbied governments to not require stiff background checks for ride-sharing drivers. Its efforts helped kill a California law that would have required drivers' background checks to be screened through the California Justice Department, on par with what taxi drivers have to do.
As a result, Uber's background checks were publicly called into question in 2015 when its screening process failed to catch the criminal records of 25 drivers in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. The findings were added to a 62-page civil complaint alleging Uber misled passengers on safety.
For its background checks today, Uber primarily uses a company called Checkr. Lyft historically used Sterling. In 2017, Chicago demanded that Lyft change its background check service after a convicted terrorist slipped through the cracks. Earlier this year, Lyft switched from Sterling to Checkr.
Unlike the taxi licensing protocol, Live Scan, which takes drivers' fingerprints as part of the background check, Checkr doesn't.
Both Checkr and Uber downplay the value of fingerprints. Lyft's former provider, Sterling has stated on its site that fingerprints don't provide the "full story." Back in 2015, Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend defended Checkr saying no background check is "100% foolproof."
However, fingerprints allow background check services to access the FBI criminal record database. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said background checks are "completely worthless" without them.
The real reason for using Checkr instead of Live Scan is certainly the cost.
Using Live Scan costs $50 per person plus shipping fees. Checkr has different prices depending on the state. Checkr's cheapest rates are in Colorado where it costs 75 cents to do a background check. In most US states, it costs between $5 and $20. In New York, where stricter regulations are enforced, it costs $65.
There are roughly 750,000 Uber drivers in the US, so it would cost the company $37.5 million to run them all through Live Scan. To put it in perspective, Uber reported $37 billion in revenue in 2017 (up 85% over 2016) and reported a loss of $4.5 billion.
However, potential taxi drivers often have to pay for the cost for their own background checks--which serves as a self-screening mechanism. So, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft could certainly require its drivers to do the same if they wanted to improve security. The problem is that it would get in the way of their push to sign up as many drivers as possible and to onboard drivers quickly to drive their business forward.
That's where Uber and Lyft are trading passenger safety for financial gain.
This article originally published on August 29, 2018.
UPDATED September 1, 2018 with additional details about Checkr and the history of the background services used by Uber and Lyft.
CORRECTION: This article originally implied that all 25 of the background checks in the 2015 civil case were conducted by Checkr. Hirease conducted most of those background checks, according to new reporting done by our sister site, CNET.
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