2016-02-25 / Around Town

Orange Cab Questions Uber Security

By Olga Enger

Concerns about the safety practices of ride-hailing companies are making international headlines this week after 45-year-old Uber driver Jason Dalton allegedly went on a fatal shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Mich. Authorities claim he killed six people and wounded two others while driving passengers for Uber.

“It’s an extreme example, but it goes to the heart of my client’s concerns,” said Attorney J. Russell Jackson, who represents Daniel Moriarty, owner of Newport’s Orange Cab and Airport Taxi of Warwick. In August, the taxi company filed a lawsuit against Uber and state regulators, claiming the company was operating as an illegal taxi company in the state.

“Uber wants to self-police. That obviously puts safety at risk,” said Jackson.

Unlike traditional taxi companies, Uber is not regulated by state agencies, which critics say not only creates an unfair competitive advantage, but also poses a risk to public safety because the drivers are not vetted by the state.

The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regulates local taxi companies, but Uber, which is based in San Francisco, has argued that it is a software company and is not subject to the same rules. Uber, which has operated in Rhode Island since 2013, does not own cars and uses a smartphone app to process payments and connect riders to drivers.

The PUC has also been a vocal critic of the Uber model, claiming they operate illegally in Rhode Island, which is a concern for public safety.

“They are providing an illegal transportation service,” said Terrence Mercer, with the Motor Carriers Division of Public Utilities, in a previous interview with Newport This Week.

“Before we were arguing these concerns at the Statehouse, but there was no gravity to it. People thought they used Uber. The driver was nice. The car was clean. But they didn’t connect the dots,” said Jackson.

The lawsuit against Uber is currently in a “holding pattern” until the end of the legislative session, Jackson added.

Although the General Assembly formed a committee last year to review the issues around ride-hailing companies, no recommendations have been made public. A bill to regulate ride-hailing companies such as Uber is expected this session.

Whether the Michigan driver would have been flagged by state regulators is unclear. Dalton had no record of criminal history, according to reports.

Uber claims to conduct their own background checks, but the details are not provided to regulators. According to their website, Uber uses the service Checkr, which is nationally accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Before individuals are approved to become drivers, they must provide their license, vehicle documentation and undergo a pre-screening process that includes a review of their motor vehicle records and criminal background. According to their website, drivers are automatically disqualified if they appear on sex offender registries or on a database that flags suspected terrorists. Additionally, the company claims to review other convictions including drinking under the influence, violent crimes and reckless driving.

Uber driver Karen Recore of Portsmouth previously told Newport This Week the process to become a driver is completed virtually, and takes up to five days.

“To become an Uber driver, applicants email the company their driver’s license and car registration,” said Recore. “Once approved, they send you the phone app and you can start working.”

Jackson said that is part of the problem with the Uber business model.

“Uber drivers go online to register; everything is done remotely,” Jackson said. “My client’s drivers are vetted by the state. They have daily contact with their employees. This goes to the heart of the safety argument that the taxi industry has been making all along.”

As an additional tool for passengers, Uber provides a five-star rating system to evaluate drivers. Dalton’s rating by customers was “good” before the day of the incident, with a 4.73 out of 5 stars, according to Uber.

However, shortly before Dalton allegedly shot his victims, a passenger alerted police and Uber of his erratic behavior, including driving across a lawn and through a median.

Although Uber did not pull the driver off the road, their policy states, “If something happens while in the car, whether it’s a traffic accident or an altercation between rider and driver, our customer support staff are ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

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