With Uber recently pulling out of Austin, returning to Midland, and potentially leaving Houston, ridesharing in Texas has been hotter than the weather. The chief argument centers on cities’ obsession with fingerprinting Transportation Network Company (TNC) drivers in the name of “public safety”. While some TNCs, such as GetMe, chose to kowtow to the regulations, others have ceased offering service in uncompromising cities.

The public safety concern is a false assertion to further the idea that the city, and only the city, can protect its people. Whether city officials have ulterior motives or whether their concerns for public safety are genuine, the fact remains that current local ordinances regarding drivers are not as thorough as local officials would have you believe.

Houston – which has the superfluous provision—allows TNC drivers to operate within city limits for thirty days prior to receiving fingerprint background checks. For reasons unknown, following that month-long period the city suddenly deems it unsafe for drivers to continue to operate under the same regulations.

A 2014 investigation found hundreds of Houston cab drivers operating with past criminal convictions such as: drunk driving, driving without a license, drug dealing, and domestic violence. The investigation found Houston had a 74 percent approval rating for those wishing to drive a cab with a past criminal conviction. The city is still operating under those same provisions. These are the type of people that Houston officials claim they’re trying to prevent from becoming Uber drivers.

The same issue was seen in Austin where out of the 163 Austin cab drivers who applied to be Uber drivers, 53 failed because of the private background check, yet were awarded a chauffeur’s license by the City of Austin.

Austin’s regulations explicitly allow ex-offenders to obtain a permit:

“An applicant who has been convicted of a criminal homicide offense; fraud or theft; unauthorized use of a motor vehicle; prostitution or promotion of prostitution; sexual assault; sexual abuse or indecency; state or federal law regulating firearms; violence to a person; use, sale or possession of drugs; or driving while intoxicated must provide proof that the applicant has maintained a record of good conduct and steady employment since release…”

TNC private background checks, however, deny permits to anyone convicted of DUI, theft, or other major convictions in the past seven years.

Fingerprinting has not proven to be the fail-safe that local officials across Texas are claiming it to be. There’s reason why Cleveland, Ohio’s city council voted to repeal their ordinance requiring these checks – they recognized it as inefficient and an unnecessary government hurdle.

Although a criminal history doesn’t necessarily correlate to future criminal behavior, local regulations permit more of the drivers that officials say they want to keep off of the road.

Taxi lobbyists are pressuring councils across the state into applying the same standard for both services even though they are not the same business models and shouldn’t be treated as such. The TNC background check method is safer for both the driver and the patron and officials who justify their unwillingness to work with TNCs to craft ridesharing-friendly regulations are not doing so for public safety.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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