Will Christie shield Uber from state background checks?
UPDATE: An Uber spokesman emailed us to say that the ride-share company opposes the use of fingerprint background checks because “they are based on incomplete data and can potentially discriminate against minority communities.”
TRENTON — New safety standards for ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft that are less stringent than those required of taxis and limousines have cleared the Legislature, but whether they’ll be signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie remains unclear.
Sponsored by state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), the bill (S-2179) requires ride-share companies to provide certain safety standards, but leaves to the discretion of the state attorney general if Uber and Lyft can conduct their own background checks, or be required to adopt stricter standards.
While companies like Uber and Lyft do conduct some background checks on their drivers, they are not required to meet the same stringent checks the state imposes on livery drivers.
In New Jersey, taxi drivers and chauffeurs must obtain a special driver’s license by passing a criminal background check, while chauffeurs also required to be fingerprinted, pass a drug test, and have no prior convictions for aggravated assault, burglary, homicide, kidnapping, robbery, or possession or sale of a controlled dangerous substance.
Craig Ewer, a spokesman for Uber, said the company was pleased by the new legislation, which has advanced in 37 other states.
Under the new legislation, ride-share companies are required to obtain a permit from the state in order to operate, but their drivers won’t need special licenses required of taxi and limo operators.
Ewer added that every driver who wants to drive for the San Francisco-based ride-share company is first screened against county, state and federal court records, state motor vehicle histories, registered sex offender databases and the U.S. Terrorist Screening Database.
He also noted that the unlike taxi and limousine companies, Uber provides for ongoing safety checks because riders can submit feedback on their experience.
That may be cold comfort to the dozens of women, often teens, who are alleged to have been sexually assaulted by their ride-share drivers.
In October, a Paterson man was accused of aggravated sexual assault while driving for Uber after a 27-year-old woman who used the ride-share service to return to her home late at night was assaulted in driveway, authorities said.
The defendant has since been terminated by Uber, which is cooperating with authorities in the investigation.
Last year, just three days after first being hired by the ride-share company, an Uber driver from Linden was charged with raping a Roselle Park woman in her apartment after dropping her off there.
Similar sexual assault incidents are alleged to have occurred in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas last month as well.
Last month, Uber Technologies Inc. settled a lawsuit filed in California by two women who say their Uber drivers sexually assaulted them.
The bill passed the Senate (29-5) and the Assembly (69-7-0), but it’s unclear if the regulations will meet with the governor’s signature.
Uber is a former client of Mercury Public Affairs, where Christie’s chief political strategist, Mike DuHaime, is a partner.
A spokesman for Christie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In addition to establishing a single, state-wide system of regulations, the bill on Christie’s desk also protects Uber and Lyft from municipalities levying extra fees on the ride-share companies.
In a related move, the Legislature also passed another bill (A3696) that would eliminate the seven percent sales tax paid by limousine companies as part of an effort to allow them to better compete with Uber and Lyft. It cleared the Senate unanimously, and passed the Assembly (70-0-3) without a single ‘no’ vote.
“The last thing we want to do is discourage members of New Jersey’s rapidly evolving transportation industry from owning and operating their business in this state,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris), it’s prime sponsor.
Claude Brodesser-Akner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClaudeBrodesser. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.