By John D. Colyandro and Russell H. Withers
Central to the debate over proposed regulations for ridesharing in Austin is safety. Specifically, fingerprint background checks for drivers are the point of contention. The City argues that the fingerprint checks are necessary for safety. Uber and Lyft argue that they are not because Uber or Lyft drivers are already subject to national background checks.
Proponents of forcing Uber and Lyft into a city-run, taxpayer-funded fingerprinting regime have plied on peoples’ fear of the prospect of being assaulted by a driver. This is a red herring; a scare tactic promoted by the opponents of ridesharing who have a vested interest – commercial or political – to make it more difficult to create a competitive marketplace.
Furthermore, the argument about passenger safety, while pertinent, misses a more salient point: driver safety. Based on available information, there is a greater likelihood that passengers pose a much greater threat to drivers than drivers do to passengers.
There are certainly examples of ridesharing and taxi drivers causing harm to passengers, such as the Uber driver who shot and killed six people in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but the conclusions drawn from the larger data are inconclusive at best. At the end of 2015, there were a total of seven reported sexual assaults alleged against Uber and Lyft drivers, and three involving taxi drivers. None of them led to an arrest. However, Uber, for example, immediately suspends a driver when incidents, such as assault, are reported. A suspended driver cannot access the app or pick up passengers.
On the other hand, working as a driver-for-hire can be a dangerous job. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that “[b]etween 1992 and 2006 700 taxicab drivers were the victims of homicide while driving for work,” and “taxicab drivers face a greater risk for injury and homicide on the job than those working in law enforcement and security.” The U.S. Occupational and Safety Administration reports that “taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other types of workers.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2014 that of 3,200 taxi drivers who were hurt or killed on the job, 180 (5.6 percent) of those were caused by a violent person.
Reinforcing this point, a Lyft driver named Maggie Young recently told her story (posted on WomenYouShouldKnow.net) of being sexually assaulted by an aggressively drunk passenger. Nick Allen, an executive for a ride service for children, explains that women are underrepresented in the ridesharing profession largely because they’ve self-selected out of it. The number one reason for that is “the perception of safety or lack thereof.”
Additional examples of assaults on drivers-for-hire are myriad. A video of a drunk Taco Bell executive beating an Uber driver recently went viral. A recent Wired article also describes a Miami doctor “trying to kick a driver before trashing his car.” Uber is so sensitive to the dangers posed by drunk passengers that the company is testing a “Bop It” toy in the back seat in hopes that it will distract and pacify certain passengers. A taxi driver in Chicago was shot to death inside his cab in February. An Austin taxi driver was attacked and almost killed in 2011 by a drunk man named Austin Rowden who the Austin Police Department forced him to give a ride to.
7-11, Wells Fargo and Exxon have the incentive to keep their customers safe but when a person enters a convenience store, Spec’s, or liquor store, we are not inclined to think of the clerk as a predator-in-waiting. We tend to think, however, that the clerk may be a victim of assault and armed robbery. The same is true of a multitude of contractors: roofers, landscapers, plumbers, tow truck drivers. This is born out by available data. The image being conjured by opponents of ridesharing is a calumny not just against the Uber and Lyft business model, but the thousands of independent contractors who drive for the companies to earn extra money. Based on known data, perhaps it’s passengers who need fingerprint background checks.
Colyandro is Executive Director and Withers is General Counsel at the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, an Austin-based public policy organization.