A California Public Utilities Commission administrative law judge will decide whether ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft should be required to use criminal background services to ensure the safety of passengers, namely unaccompanied minors. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Kids’ safety shapes background checks for Uber, Lyft drivers

California regulators are taking a hard look at whether kids should be able to ride alone in “rideshares” like Uber or Lyft — a decision that could tighten restrictions for drivers.

Those potential new rules come as the California Public Utilities Commission considers new criminal background check requirements for child-focused “rideshare” services like Shuddle, or HopSkipDrive, which the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

The discussion of new background checks is part of the CPUC’s development of its “Phase II Regulations” to potentially rewrite the laws governing tech transit entities.

This year, Robert Mason, a CPUC administrative law judge, asked interested parties across California for input on what the new rules for children in rideshares should be.

In legal filings spanning November to December, so-called rideshares, taxi companies, advocacy groups and even a former FBI agent weighed in on what effects potential new laws would have.

Though commonly called “rideshares,” Uber and Lyft are legally called Transportation Network Companies by California regulators, or TNCs.

Lyft users are required to be at least age 18, the company’s attorneys wrote to the CPUC, adding “… it is Lyft’s policy that unaccompanied minors are not permitted to take Lyft rides on their own.”

Uber similarly requires account holders to be 18, according to the company’s Terms of Service Agreement.

But San Francisco’s Taxi Workers Alliance and the Greater California Livery Association both argued Uber and Lyft should have deeper criminal background checks.

Even if the two TNCs don’t allow minors, underage persons will eventually use the services anyhow, the taxi groups argued.

“TNCs that profess not to provide service to unaccompanied minors are bound to do so on occasion. As happens with taxis, a parent will entrust a driver to get a child to school or to some other destination,” Mark Gruberg of the Taxi Workers Alliance wrote to Judge Mason.
The Washington Post and other news outlets across the country have found unaccompanied minors riding Uber and Lyft, which is against the companies’ policies.

That’s why Uber and Lyft should fingerprint its drivers and utilize FBI databases, the taxi groups argue. Uber and Lyft rely on third-party checks of names and social security numbers, which District Attorney George Gascon has publicly criticized as weak measures.

In legal filings, Lyft asked that when new rules are made, Lyft “not be subject to additional rules designed for specialized providers of family transportation services.”

Lyft is referring to new rules governing what criminal background checks should be required — and who should provide them — at TNCs focused on children, like Shuddle.

The San Francisco International Airport and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency wrote to Judge Mason, asking that Shuddle and other child-focused TNCs be required under the law to use the criminal background service Trustline.

Shuddle now uses Trustline, but the request would make its use law.

Trustline, the agencies said, is superior because it makes use of the Child Abuse Central Index, a database of people investigated for child abuse or neglect, but who were not convicted of those crimes.

SFO and the SFMTA wrote that Shuddle’s checks are lacking because they do not access this child abuse database.

“TNCs that transport unaccompanied minors may be unwittingly matching child predators who have evaded criminal prosecution,” they wrote. “This exposes children to potential abusers and TNCs to potential liability. It is an unacceptable risk to public safety.”

Shuddle, for its part, argued in filings that the FBI database is often incomplete due to human error, and that third-party criminal checks are more accurate.

The company also argues Trustline is too expensive.

“Most parties in favor of Trustline do not address Trustline’s delays and high cost,” Shuddle wrote.

Trustline’s screenings can cost $200 or more, Shuddle wrote, more than “five times” the cost of Shuddle’s current screening process.

Even if Judge Mason decides to increase regulatory protections for children in TNCs, those new laws may not be drafted until late 2016, according to the CPUC.

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