Women’s Group Wants Uber, Lyft to Improve Background Checks

The request comes after high-profile reports of drivers' assaulting riders in Boston.



The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Organization for Women wants companies like Uber and Lyft to beef up their background checks on drivers. The group released a statement after two riders reported incidents of sexual assault by drivers.

“While we understand no background check process is perfect, we believe that utilizing the most rigorous screening methods available like fingerprinting or other identification measures for drivers is one important step to ensure passenger safety,” Katie Prisco-Buxbaum, a Mass NOW spokesperson, says in a statement.

In December 2014, a Boston Uber driver allegedly drove a female passenger to a remote location, then beat and sexually assaulted her. In February, another Uber driver was charged with sexually assaulting a rider. The company has faced similar incidents in cities around the world, as well as criticism that its background checks don’t do enough to prevent drivers with criminal histories or poor driving records from getting on the road.

Women’s activists are just the latest group to urge these companies to do more. City governments and even U.S. congressmen have urged the companies to use more reliable background check methods like fingerprinting. Uber said in a recent statement it is “taking steps to improve the process.” But it has traditionally resisted cities’ attempts to force more stringent background checks, perhaps because it stalls their expansion into new markets by limiting the speed with which it can get new drivers on the road.

On other issues, when the company comes into conflict with city regulators, it often triumphs, in part because residents are so enamored with the convenience it brings to their lives that they speak up on the company’s behalf. That convenience has helped us look the other way when the company faced criticism over predatory pricing practices or privacy violations. Gawker’s Sam Biddle, a consistent Uber critic, put this colorfully when he wrote:

… our addiction to convenience makes us the perfect slow-boiled frogs. Uber is a tremendously successful, rapidly growing startup premised on laziness—and [CEO Travis Kalanick] knows that if we can’t be bothered to just ride a bike, how many people are really going to worry about this?

Safety, though, might be one of those things that shakes us from our apathy. This feels like an issue on which Uber should be ahead of its customers, and not just because it’s morally sound. It’s also good business. Convenience trumps a lot of things for customers, but it doesn’t usually trump safety. A few high-profile incidents can quickly erode a company’s reputation. Look at the Fung Wah bus line. It’s cheaper than competitors, it’s often faster. Its main advantage is convenience. But how many people do you know who will never step foot on it because of its reputation for poorly trained drivers and spectacular accidents?

Uber and Lyft have a long way to fall before the face Fung Wah’s public relations problems. But safety is a critical issue. They would do well to listen to the National Organization for Women, and all those who have made similar calls for better background checks before it.