In the wake of several alleged assaults by Uber and Lyft drivers, King County may consider changes to how it regulates the 32,000 licensed ride-hailing drivers in the region, including possibly requiring signage on ride-hailing cars or mandating that drivers be fingerprinted before licensing.
Currently, both Uber and Lyft run third-party background checks on everybody who applies to drive for them. Those checks, conducted by a company called Checkr, search driving records, local, state and national criminal databases as well as sex offender registries, the companies said Monday.
If a potential driver passes the background check, he or she receives a temporary license while the application is forwarded to the King County Division of Licensing, which reviews the background check before issuing a permanent ride-hailing license.
Anyone with a hit-and-run, DUI or similar vehicular offense within the last five years, or anyone with a sex offense, cannot get a license. Other past crimes — such as physical violence, fraud or burglary — are left to the discretion of the Division of Licensing to decide whether they disqualify a potential driver.
Both companies also rerun background checks on their drivers at least annually, company representatives said on Monday, at a Metropolitan King County Council committee hearing examining the companies’ security processes.
A recent CNN report found that more than 100 Uber drivers nationally have been accused of sexual assault in the last four years.
Two weeks ago, a 42-year-old Lyft driver from Everett was charged with indecent liberties, a felony, and accused of sexually touching a woman who said she was drunk and had fallen asleep as he gave her a ride home from a Bellevue night club. The woman woke up with the driver’s hand in her pants, the charging papers say.
“The victim was terrified of what the defendant would do since she was isolated in his car,” King County prosecutors wrote in court documents. “The state is concerned that the defendant may have access to other vulnerable victims in his capacity as a ride-share driver.”
Also last month, an Uber and Lyft driver was charged with rape in connection with a sexual assault in SeaTac, and prosecutors wrote that he was suspected of committing at least five similar sexual assaults since 2014, while driving for the companies. Earlier in April a Tukwila man was charged with rape, accused of posing as an Uber driver to pick up a woman outside a bar in Ballard.
During a meeting of the King County Council’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee on Monday, Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer asked Uber and Lyft representatives about their driver-screening policies, saying their drivers were looked at “as dependable as a bus driver.”
“There’s a public demand for accountability,” von Reichbauer said. “Whether we like it or not, these drivers are now part of our transportation network and we have a role as licensers to make sure they are as reviewed as possible.”
Both companies stressed that safety was their highest priority.
Brian Hockaday, Lyft’s Northwest public-policy manager, said the company has launched a new continuous background check program that will “provide Lyft with daily monitoring of its active drivers and immediate notification of any disqualifying criminal convictions.”
Caleb Weaver, who runs public affairs for Uber in 11 western states, said the company has started an ad campaign to teach customers about the safety measures included in its app. Those include a button that calls 911 from the app and the ability to share real-time location information with friends and family.
Weaver said that using the app’s features — and verifying a driver’s name, vehicle and identity through the app — is the best way to ensure safety.
Drivers are not required to display any sort of Uber or Lyft decal or signage on their cars, although many do.
Weaver said the company has concerns about potential signage requirements for its cars because it would “encourage riders to look at something other than the app” to assess security. He said that it’s possible to buy both Uber and Lyft signage and decals online.
County law, adopted in 2014, allows background checks either by a third-party company, which both companies do, or by fingerprinting, which local taxi companies do.
“Why the discrepancy, both are doing the same job?” Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. “I would think we look at that piece of the code and determine, after a review of the data, whether one system is safer than the other.”
Staff writer Sara Jean Green contributed to this report.