From the Daily: Bill should address Uber safety

Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 7:15pm

Over a year ago, the Michigan House of Representatives began debating the lack of regulations on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, attempting to clear up the legal gray area in which these companies have been operating. Now, the Michigan House Legislature is in the process of considering a similar package of bills that would seek to address this issue, as well as provide regulation for all transportation companies across the state. Though this proposed legislation seeks to provide a necessary answer to questions surrounding these companies place in the state of Michigan, it fails to address certain aspects of safety and accountability that surround this issue.

As it currently stands, the proposed legislation would prohibit local governments from enacting their own taxes or additional licenses, require companies to pay an annual fee and register with the state, mandate state and federal background checks and annual safety inspections, and compel drivers to take the most direct route unless the passenger specifies otherwise. Essentially, the bills create a space for ride-hailing services in the state’s laws, but they don’t address some of the more tenuous problems that come along with these services.

First and foremost, there is a lack of substance when it comes to the enforcement of these regulations. The bill notes the suspension or revoking of licenses from drivers, but no other punishments for the company. Too often, customers are taken advantage of by taxis and ride-hailing options like Ubers and Lyft. Though accountability of some form exists due to the GPS system, there are many other methods by which a driver can scam a customer, especially tourists and out-of-state students who may not know the area they are traveling in very well. 

That said, a potential positive of the pending legislation is that it avoids the mistakes that other local governments have made, such as that of Austin, Texas. Earlier this year, Uber and Lyft pulled out of the 11th-largest city in the United States after the city proposed strict regulations, including the mandatory fingerprinting of all drivers. In their attempt to maintain the delicate balance between safety and innovation, local officials in Austin failed.

However, the motivation behind the Austin policy — to provide maximum safety to citizens — is understandable and needs to be made a priority in any new legislation that regulate ride-hailing services. Among the popularity of apps such as Uber and Lyft, research suggests that there has been an increase in assaults against passengers in ride-hailing taxi settings. Three drivers in Chicago were charged with sexually assaulting their passengers over the course of the past two years; in more than one case, the victim was highly intoxicated. A similar assault occurred just last month around San Diego, when an Uber and Lyft driver was accused of assaulting three teenage passengers. Perhaps the most tragic and relevant example to pinpoint the necessity of new legislation occurred in February in Kalamazoo, when Jason Dalton killed six people and wounded two others (while driving for Uber). Hours after the shootings, he blamed his iPhone for the attacks, saying that it directed him both where to go and when to shoot.

The evidence is clear that the current state of the company’s background checks is simply not doing enough to protect its passengers. It is a reasonable expectation of a customer that when they download this app, they will be transported safely from one place to another by someone who does not have a criminal background and is mentally stable.

A recent bill in California makes important strides in this respect. This new bill prohibits companies such as Uber and Lyft from hiring registered sex offenders, as well as those who have been convicted of felonies or have driven under the influence in the last seven years and mandates a fine of between $1,000 and $5,000 when companies violate background check rules. This bill supplements the ride-hailing checks and provide for the safety of millions of citizens who use these services. Michigan should take note.

Now that the Michigan state legislature is seeking to bring more regulation and specific legal status to these ride-hailing companies, it is a reasonable expectation that some of these more substantial regulations, like those that California has implemented, will follow and provide more accountability and safety to Uber and Lyft users across the state of Michigan.