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Council talks TNC regulations ahead of vote

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

After months of deliberation, City Council will consider a slew of new regulations Thursday for transportation network companies including Uber, Lyft and Austin’s newest arrival, Dallas-based Get Me. Council talked through the proposals – including a fingerprint background check requirement that could mean the end of Lyft and Uber in the city – at a Tuesday work session.

Mayor Steve Adler summed up the conundrum that he believes Council is facing and suggested that there may be a way around it.

“I think that what we hear from our public safety people is that we have a safer system if we have fingerprinting as part of the background check that we’re doing. In conversations with our public safety leaders, I also think that what we hear is that we are a safer community if we have an operating and viable TNC … because of its impact on DWIs and the like,” Adler said.

“I am real uncomfortable feeling like I have to pick between those two things. … So I’m looking forward to working with Council Member (Ann) Kitchen and the other members of the (Council) Mobility Committee to see if there’s a way to accomplish both things,” Adler continued, adding that there is a “high risk” that Uber and Lyft would leave if Council adopts the fingerprint rule.

Uber and Lyft officials have hinted in the past that they would likely cease operations in Austin if Council were to require fingerprint background checks, and Uber released a survey recently stating that “Austin public officials are considering changes to the current ridesharing regulations that would cause companies like Uber and Lyft to cease operations in Austin.”

RideScout CEO Joseph Kopser and several business community representatives signed a letter to Council delivered on Wednesday opposing the proposed rules. “The current discussed approach would impose duplicative onboarding requirements for TNC drivers, although City Council has been repeatedly informed that such requirements would cause them to cease operations entirely in Austin,” the letter reads.

Kitchen, who heads up the Mobility Committee and has taken the lead on recommending the new rules, pointed out that Uber and Lyft have recently been joined in Austin by Get Me, which began as an on-demand delivery service in October and received authority from the city to operate as a TNC company on Dec. 4.

“They have already agreed to the kinds of changes that we’re talking about,” Kitchen said.

If passed, the ordinance would require that TNC drivers undergo national fingerprint background checks by February. According to a handout that Kitchen passed out, it would also set a six-month transition period for the TNCs to work with the city to “develop processes that mitigate perceived or actual barriers to obtaining fingerprints,” among other initiatives.

Aside from the background check issue, the ordinance would set an operating fee for TNCs, prohibit TNC drivers from stopping in travel lanes to load and unload passengers, strengthen data-reporting requirements and require both “geofencing” to limit pickup and drop-off locations during major events and “trade dress” – such as brand-specific stickers – to identify vehicles and more.

The question that lies at the heart of the debate about fingerprint background checks is whether they weed out more dangerous drivers than those relying on personal information such as names and social security numbers that Uber and Lyft use.

“The question on the table is using fingerprints as an identifier as part of that background check process,” Kitchen said. “The purpose there is to know – it’s a biometric identifier – is to know that the person you’re checking on is that person. They’re not giving you false names, they’re not using aliases and stuff like that.”

At a Council meeting on Oct. 15, Mike Lesko, deputy assistant director for the Texas Department of Public Safety, argued that fingerprint background checks are the only way to properly identify a person during a background check.

Stuart K. Pratt, president and CEO of the Consumer Data Industry Association, had a letter published in the Austin-American Statesman on Friday calling fingerprint background checks “the wrong kind of background check.”

“FBI and state law enforcement fingerprint data is incomplete and won’t achieve the intended goal of public safety,” Pratt wrote. “A name-based criminal background check is more comprehensive and is better able to protect the public.”

A similar back-and-forth will likely take place on Thursday, as Council plans to call up four speakers in favor of the proposed regulations and four in opposition, as well as law enforcement experts who will speak to the merits and flaws of the different types of background checks.

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