Cab drivers have photo IDs to identify themselves. But if you’re riding in an Uber in California, you might want to start looking for a mugshot instead.
The popular ride-sharing service just announced an initiative it plans to roll out in the Golden State. It would allow convicted felons whose crimes have been reduced to misdemeanors to work as drivers.
Which raises the question for parents: Is this a car you really want to call? Do you want your child in that car?
Uber’s model is pretty simple. A customer hails a car using an app on a smartphone or other device, and a driver using their own car shows up and takes the customer from point A to point B. Scores of people have used Uber and are perfectly satisfied, and some customers rely on the same Uber drivers for continued taxi service. But the fact is that Uber drivers are not regulated by any oversight authority. A driver can receive Uber credentials in 24 hours.
“Uber is totally unregulated,” said George Fiorenza, owner of taxi company Ambassador Brattle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Your child is getting in a car with a stranger who answers to no real authority whatsoever.”
Under what could be called the “everyone-makes-mistakes initiative," San Francisco-based Uber is changing its policy on hiring drivers. Up until now, drivers who committed felonies were automatically disqualified from driving for the company. But a controversial California ballot measure called Proposition 47 that passed in 2014 reclassifies certain felonies as misdemeanors. Uber plans to contact those potential drivers who previously applied about the possibility of having their cases reconsidered in court.
The reclassified crimes include shoplifting, personal use of illegal drugs, writing a bad check, and receiving stolen property.
Uber will also refer applicants to Defy Ventures, an organization that offers employment training to people with criminal records.
In an age of increased security, Uber also offers a giant, and frightening, public safety loophole.
“Uber is honestly a perfect vehicle for terrorists, no pun intended,” Fiorenza said. “We have real worries about that. A terrorist can go anywhere as an Uber driver — it’s so easy to sign up and be approved as one — and if he’s stopped by authorities he can just say, ‘Oh, I’m an Uber driver.’”
One entity is cheering loudly about former criminals being offered work with Uber: the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, an organization that works with former prisoners to help them re-enter society by connecting with the larger community. Troy Vaughn, the group's chairman, called the move by Uber a game changer.
“This relates to helping individuals recover their lives,” Vaughn told the Los Angeles Times. “Everyone makes mistakes. Are we saying now as a society we will not afford a person an opportunity because he made a mistake when he was still learning how to be a man? I think we want to send a different message.”
This move to welcome former criminals may not be purely altruistic. Uber is growing so quickly, it needs drivers in its seats, period. As the company struggles for growth to meet demand, it is broadening its pool of drivers — and apparently, even former felons will do.
“Uber has the financial ability and the network to intimidate local government because if you go up against them, they tweet and email-blast their drivers to flood that office with complaint emails,” said Fiorenza. “Most officials just don’t have the time or staff for that, so they fold.”
Uber has been in the spotlight in the past for its safety protocols, from cab companies and law enforcement.
Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorneys filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Uber in 2014. They alleged the ride-hailing company misleads consumers about the service’s safety, overcharges them, and cares nothing for laws.
“Uber says it uses an ‘industry-leading background check process,' but (it) does not fingerprint its drivers,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said in a news conference about the lawsuit, making the company’s criminal checks “completely worthless.”
“The company repeats this misleading statement, giving consumers a false sense of security when deciding whether to get into a stranger’s car,” he said.
One driver — years before Uber was founded — was convicted of second-degree murder in 1982, according to a 62-page amendment to court papers the district attorneys filed against Uber. The murderer spent 26 years in prison, was released in 2008 and applied to Uber. A background report turned up no records relating to his murder conviction, allowing him to give rides to over 1,100 Uber customers.
Another driver was convicted on felony charges for lewd acts with children. He gave over 5,600 rides to Uber customers. Another was convicted of burglary and identity theft.
“At the end of the ride, the Uber driver asked me if I had been near Lincoln Center a few hours earlier," wrote one Uber customer, Olivia Nuzzi, in The Daily Beast. "I said I hadn't, since I didn't remember walking past there. Then he took out his iPad. 'Really?' he asked. 'Because you look like this girl.' He turned the iPad around to face the back seat. To my surprise, I saw a full-length, close-up picture of me, wearing the workout clothes I'd had on an hour previously.”
“Since Uber, we have had more assault charges in Cambridge than we have in the last 50 years combined,” said Fiorenza, adding this blunt opinion: “An Uber is not a car you ever want to entrust your kid’s safety to.”
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