FACT CHECK: New ad supports ridesharing claims

A new TV ad from Ridesharing Works for Austin
A new TV ad from Ridesharing Works for Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new ad is turning the eyes of KXAN’s investigative team to claims in the battle over background checks in Austin.

New rules require fingerprint background checks for drivers with ride hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, but an election in May could change that.

On May 7, voters will decide if they support Proposition 1. The vote will do a few things. At its most basic level, it will get rid of new, city council-approved regulations on ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, in favor of new rules supported by a group that the companies themselves are bankrolling.

The new ordinance made it to the polls with help from supporters of Uber and Lyft including business owners, members of the music industry, and others. The group gathered more than 65,000 petition signatures to force council to approve the new rules or send the issue to voters, according to the committee. Recently, former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell also jumped in on the pro-Prop 1 side and became chairman of the Vote for Prop 1 campaign.

Now, the group Ridesharing Works for Austin is focusing on one aspect of the possible changes. It’s the one the transportation companies and the city have been focusing on the most: background checks.

Before we jump into the ad, it’s important to get an understanding of what you are voting on in May.

Here’s the ballot language, which itself has been a source of controversy:

Shall the City Code be amended to repeal City Ordinance No. 20151217-075 relating to Transportation Network Companies; and replace with an ordinance that would repeal and prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicle with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?”

Again, voting “yes” on Prop 1 will approve the regulations from Ridesharing Works for Austin supports and voting “no” will keep in place the city council regulations.

The sticking point has been fingerprint background checks. Supporters of fingerprinting wanted the requirements in the name of safety. Uber and Lyft have promise to leave town if their drivers have to submit to fingerprint-based background checks. Uber and Lyft have called the fingerprinting measure an unnecessary burden that deters drivers, saying there are more effective and efficient ways to conduct a background check.

Here’s a summary of the key differences in the two ordinances:

Issue “Yes” on Prop 1 “No” on Prop 1
Background checks National background check required. Drivers convicted of DWI, fraud, sexual offense, use of vehicle to commit a felony, gun-related violations, resisting/evading arrest, reckless driving, crime involving property damage, theft, acts of violence, or acts of terror cannot drive for a TNC. National fingerprint background check will be phased in between May of 2016 and February of 2017. List of offenses to exclude drivers is to be determined.
Background check payment TNCs would pay for the background checks The Austin Transportation Department may provide assistance to drivers with the cost of fingerprint collection. However, this comes from a fee paid to the city by the companies.
Data Requires TNCs to keep records of drivers and former drivers. It requires quarterly reports to the city including evaluating information such as drop off patterns, peak ridership times, cost of trips, and length of trips, and ADA service. The ordinance highlights examples of data that would be in the report. Requires TNCs to submit specific monthly data to the city including number of requested trips; number of trips requested, but not serviced by zip code, number of vehicles logged on to TNC platform, number of pickups and drop-offs by zip code; accessible vehicle trips requested and not serviced; and driver hours logged, along with other data.
Accessibility TNCs have to put aside 10 cents for every Austin ride to support riders with disabilities. It states the goal is to get accessible ride wait times to equal those of other rides. Requires TNCs to adopt an accessibility plan.
Street Hails Drivers can only accept rides booked through the app. Drivers can only accept rides booked through the app and can have their chauffeur permit suspended for violations.
Annual Fees TNCs pay the city 1 percent of gross revenue. TNCs have several options including one percent of gross revenue or a comparable percentage of driver fares, a fee based on miles driven, or total of the permit fee paid by taxicab companies times the number of persons driving for the TNC. TNCs not participating in a safety assurance program will also have to pay an additional 1 percent fee of gross revenue to a compliant driver education fund. No matter how it works out, TNCs cannot pay more than 2 percent of its gross revenue in fees.”
Trade Dress None required TNCs drivers are required to display an emblem, like the pink mustache or Uber logo.
Travel Lanes No restrictions A driver operating as a TNC driver may not stop, stand, park, load or unload passengers in a travel lane or in an officially designated bus stop.

Both ordinances also have a number of similarities like requiring companies to follow state rules for insurance, zero tolerance for drunk drivers and other provisions.

Fact checking the new ad

“We can all agree ridesharing drivers should have national criminal background checks,” a voice reads in a new advertisement from Ridesharing Works for Austin.

Misleading: “But on May 7, we’ll be deciding who should conduct them.”

A “yes” vote will keep keep things the way Uber and Lyft operate now, according to a spokesperson for Ridesharing Works for Austin. The language for a “yes” vote states a person may become a TNC driver if the driver passes a background check, which does not include fingerprints.

A “no” vote on Prop 1 will let the city phase in fingerprint background checks.

KXAN found the statement misleading because nowhere in it, or in the ad as a whole, is there a mention that a “yes” vote is also a vote against fingerprint-based background checks.

Mostly True: “A vote for Prop 1 requires Uber and Lyft to keep conducting criminal background checks with full oversight by the city.”

As mentioned earlier, Uber and Lyft will be able to keep conducting background checks as they did before the new council-passed ordinance. “Full oversight” is a subjective term.  A “yes” vote will still require the research for the ridesharing background checks to be done by a company “approved by the Austin Transportation Department Director,” according to the ordinance on the Ridesharing Works for Austin website.

Mostly True: “A vote against would require the city to take over background checks…”

The city would receive the background checks from DPS and the FBI. However, the rules also allow for a third party to submit the fingerprint background checks to the state. Still, the Ridesharing Works for Austin spokesperson states, that even if a third party runs the test, it will still be at the direction of the city.

Mostly False: “… and Austin taxpayers would pay.”

The ordinance passed by city council in December states “The Austin Transportation Department may provide assistance to drivers with the cost of fingerprint collection.” The Our City Our Safety Our Choice PAC, which is pushing for a “no” vote, interprets a section of the city ordinance as suggesting the cost would be paid for through a fee from the transportation companies. However, the transportation department notes that the city has not decided how it will pay for the costs.

The ad closes with an opinion and a summary of the arguments.

“On May 7, vote for tough background checks. For full city oversight. And for ridesharing companies to pay,” the voice over says. “Vote for Prop 1.”

Ridesharing Works for Austin is a political action committee asking voters to approve Proposition 1. The organization brought in donations from Uber and Lyft totaling more than $2.1 million, according to a financial document filed with the city of Austin on April 7. The contributions include more than checks. The total includes services like consulting and other donations such as lodging. The PAC still had $129,890 in contributions at the time of the filing and had spent $781,251.

On the other side, the political action committee called Our City Our Safety Our Choice has received donations of $12,458.

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