The San Francisco Chronicle reported Friday afternoon that a local Uber driver is being prosecuted for allegedly attacking his passenger with a hammer on Tuesday.
According to the court documents cited by the Chronicle, the driver and three passengers had a verbal altercation about which route to take. The driver pulled the car over and told the passengers to get out. After they did, the driver allegedly stepped out of the car, hit one man with a hammer, and then drove off. The passenger passed out and was taken to the hospital.
This is the most recent in a long line of alleged assaults, rapes, and kidnappings of passengers by Uber drivers. It does appear to be the most grievous injury inflicted on purpose so far. Although the crimes reported have ranged from an Uber driver taking a drunk, unconscious club goer to a motel room to one choking a passenger, the publicity backlash has yet to hurt Uber’s growth. Convenience trumps safety. Plenty of taxi drivers have assaulted passengers too, so it’s not like this is only Uber’s problem.
However, because ridesharing is regulated by a different government body, Uber uses a more lenient type of background check than the kind required for taxi drivers in most urban areas in California. Taxi companies in San Francisco, for example, must legally do Live Scans, which are electronic fingerprint background checks that access federal, state, and county records. Furthermore, the scans update in real time so if a driver commits a crime — like drunk driving — in the months or years after his check, the taxi company will be alerted.
In contrast, Uber and Lyft use agencies which, because they’re not connected to the government, rely on less complete database information to run their checks. This type of check is done with a social security number and not a fingerprint, making it cheaper and easier to scale because drivers don’t have to physically present themselves for a background check. There is no one complete digital database of court records in the United States, and someone’s criminal and driving past could be scattered across various jurisdictions. As a result, background checks by these types of private companies are far more likely to miss records, according to private investigators I’ve spoken with.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that this week the D.A. in San Francisco and Los Angeles decided to take action. The district attorneys sent letters to Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, telling those companies that they’re lying to their customers when they claim their background checks are complete and must remove all those statements from company literature.
The D.A.’s started investigating Uber’s background check procedures after I broke the news that Daveea Whitmire, another driver accused of assaulting a San Francisco passenger, had a prior felony record and had done jail time before signing up to work for Uber. Furthermore, when Whitmire allegedly attacked his passenger, he was on probation, had violated it, and was scheduled for another court session. Uber’s background check didn’t pick up any of that.
Following the news, Uber expanded its background checks, but it still didn’t move to Live Scan. It said it commissioned its agency — Hirease — to send in-person representatives to pull court records in counties that didn’t have the information online. It’s not clear whether that change in execution made much of a difference, since reported assaults and kidnappings continued to pile up afterwards. I’ve asked Uber again and again why it won’t introduce Live Scans to meet the standards that taxi agencies have to uphold, but the company has declined to comment.
When I reached out to Uber this time for information on the most recent alleged assault and the company’s background check procedures, a spokesperson told me, “Safety is Uber’s #1 priority. We take reports like this seriously and are treating the matter with the utmost urgency and care. It is also our policy to immediately suspend a driver’s account following any serious allegations, which we have done. We stand ready to assist authorities in any investigation.”