Lax rideshare regulations put drivers, passengers, and pedestrians at risk
The new CPUC regulations specify that TNCs must only provide liability insurance when drivers are "in service." The Taxicab Paratransit Association of California is suing to modify those rules, saying the meaning of "in service" was never defined — and they allege this wording allows companies to disavow responsibility for a driver not carrying passengers at the moment of an accident.
This gaping loophole can also lead to insurance and liability consequences.
"I would guess that's on the order of a $20 million liability case," Christiane Hayashi, director of Taxi services at the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, said of Liu's death. "The question is, who is going to pay for it?"
Muzzafar, and not Uber, may be on the fiscal hook, even though it's unlikely he could cover the family's medical and legal fees on his own.
Though much reporting has focused on TNC drivers' lack of insurance, the collision that killed Sofia Liu on New Year's Eve raises other questions as well. Just how did a driver with a reckless driving record manage to become a partner with Uber in the first place?
Checking out drivers
The recently drafted CPUC regulations require the TNCs to carry out background checks, a key element for safety. As it turns out, not all background checks are made equal.
Uber hired a private company called Hirease to conduct its checks, the Guardian learned in emails obtained from drivers. While Hirease requires Uber drivers to fill out a form with their personal information, taxi drivers who must register with the city's transportation agency are screened with fingerprinting, Hayashi from the SFMTA told us.
The fingerprint checks make use of the FBI's national criminal database, something a company like Hirease lacks access to (since it isn't a government agency). We called the FBI's background check department, based in West Virginia, to better understand the two methods.
We spoke to a rank and file employee, not a spokesperson, so he declined to give his name. The FBI employee spoke with a twang, and clearly laid out the problems.
The first snag with private background checks are false positives from common names (like John Smith) or stolen identities, he said.
Self-identification is also a problem. "If you're a criminal, you're not going to use your information," the FBI employee said. "What if you were a lady and you were married six times, which name will you use for a background check? Bottom line, fingerprints are exclusive. Names are not."
Another flaw is that while background checks performed for entities like the SFMTA make use of a federal database that dates back 100 years, California law doesn't allow private background checks to go beyond seven years — and Muzzafar's reckless driving arrest was nine years ago.
"Uber works with Hirease to conduct stringent background checks," Uber spokesperson Andrew Noyes wrote to us via email. "This driver (Muzzafar) had a clean background check when he became an Uber partner."
Hirease and Uber did what they legally could, but the summation of laws and regulations blinded Uber to Muzzafar's background — and nothing in the new CPUC regulations would have prevented this. That may go a long way toward explaining how a man caught recklessly driving with his own family in the car in Florida was driving for Uber the night he allegedly struck and killed a child.
Importantly, California law does allow for a taxi driver to have one reckless driving incident, or one count of driving under the influence, on his or her record. But as Hayashi told us, stricter background checks make it easier for taxi companies to spot a red flag before making hiring decisions.