Uber: Drivers who failed its background check have had Austin-issued licenses

Uber Austin's Driver Support Center in East Austin (Robert Maxwell, KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Fifty-three drivers who failed background checks to become Uber drivers have been issued chauffeur’s licenses by the City of Austin, according to an internal Uber audit.

A memo to be sent to Mayor Steven Alder Tuesday afternoon from Uber Austin’s General Manager Marco McCottry says of 163 Austin cab drivers who applied to Uber, 53 “were prevented from partnering with Uber due to failing Uber’s background check process,” McCottry wrote in the memo obtained by KXAN News. Further, 19 of those 53 were rejected “because of a recent serious offense (conviction). Crimes included felony assaults, DWIs and a hit and run.” Uber says its staff used chauffeur’s license data from the city of Austin from 2012-2015. It is not clear if the people who applied with Uber and were denied still have active Austin taxi licenses.

Uber representatives say their background checks are conducted by a third party who in turn hires people around the nation to actually visit a county or federal court to scour any existing criminal records of any driver applicant.

KXAN reached out to Austin’s Transportation Department officials for their reaction that city background checks might have missed some criminal convictions among working taxi drivers. A spokesperson says the department will need to examine Uber’s audit before commenting. Among the convictions Uber contends it found, it will not specify if any happened in Texas or occurred out-of-state. Nor will it commit to sharing its raw data with city staff, citing rules protecting third party data requests and privacy concerns.

The President of Yellow Cab Austin, Edward Kargbo, tells KXAN he supports a resolution before City Council to compare and possibly improve existing background checks. Currently, the city only requires background checks through the Texas Department of Public Safety for its ground transportation applicants; instead of a national background check, city code shows.

Uber Audit

  • 163: City-permitted people completed Uber’s background check
  • 53 of 163: Failed Uber’s background check
  • 19 of 53: Had a serious offense

**From list of individuals who were granted a chauffeur’s permit from COA from 2012-15

The audit and memo come at a time when Uber is going head-to-head with council members such as Mobility Committee Chair Ann Kitchen, who have been lobbying for fingerprint background checks for all ground transportation providers including Uber and Lyft drivers. Taxi drivers working in Austin must undergo a state-wide fingerprint check before receiving their permit.

Kitchen says it’s difficult to compare Uber’s background check process with the city’s current background check rules for driver eligibility which are under review with the aim of creating similar rules for every ground transportation provider from taxis to TNCs. Right now, an Austin cabbie with a prior criminal conviction can still work if their conduct shows they can stay out of trouble.

“People are not allowed to drive for taxis that have not gone thorough a rigorous process that includes determining if they’re eligible to drive,” she explains.

Fingerprint fight

Uber and competitor Lyft are fighting the city on a council resolution to add fingerprint checks to all backgrounding. They fear the extra step would prevent people from signing up. High driver volume is a key part of the TNC business model so rider wait times are kept short.

Uber’s McCottry says it would be difficult for the company to do business in Austin if the fingerprint resolution receives final approval from the City Council next month. The company briefly left San Antonio after a similar ordinance was passed—Uber returned in October when the rules were amended to allow Uber drivers to voluntarily undergo a fingerprint check apart from Uber’s own background check protocols. Only Houston dictates TNC drivers must undergo a fingerprint check. Houston was an early adopter city to allow the service.

A City of Austin Transportation Department report from August concerning Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) recommended the city update rules for all ground transportation providers to mirror those of TNCs. “We strongly encourage you to heed the Austin Transportation Department’s recommendation and require the City to adopt Uber’s background check process,” continues Uber’s memo to Mayor Adler.

In September, Uber deactivated one driver after he was arrested in Travis County accused of persuading a female passenger to return to his apartment where she contends she was held against her will, according to court documents. KXAN requested the number of total driver “deactivations” in the 15 months Uber has operated in Austin but was told it would be unfair to release that number since not all deactivations center on a complaint.

Uber’s Safety Process

  • Uber drivers typically display their name, photo, license plate number and photo of their vehicle in their profile
  • Every trip is GPS tracked
  • Riders can ping those waiting for them their exact location in real time and time of arrival
  • Drivers and riders can rate each other after each trip
  • Uber coordinates with law enforcement where needed

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