If you knew your Uber or Lyft driver was convicted of a crime, would you still hitch a ride? What if the charge was seven years ago? Would that make a difference?
This question about driver background checks and rider safety isn’t a new one. In fact, it played a huge factor in Uber and Lyft’s decision to cease operations in Austin back in 2016, when fingerprint-based background checks were on the ballot for locals to vote on. (They have since returned following a statewide bill that overrode Austin’s ordinance.)
“When Lyft and Uber came back in May… I registered for both,” said an Austin rideshare driver to an employee of The Zebra. He agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity. “No fingerprinting, but they did do a background check with my social security number. Uber was cool with my record, Lyft was not.”
A misdemeanor conviction from 2004 disqualified him from becoming a Lyft driver, though not Uber or the other local rideshare companies. “My charge was Distribution of Marijuana by Accommodation.”
In Texas, that’s either a Class A or Class B misdemeanor depending on the amount, up to 7 grams. More than that it becomes a state felony. According to marijuana activist organization Texas Norml, “The sale or delivery of between 7 grams and 5 lbs. is a state jail felony, punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days imprisonment, a maximum of 2 years imprisonment, and a fine not to exceed $10,000.”
That’s pretty jarring considering that states like Colorado and Oregon allow individuals to carry up to an ounce of marijuana on them — there are 28.3 grams in 1 ounce.
Do Rideshare Passengers Care Whether a Driver Has Committed a Crime?
The Zebra polled 1,679 Twitter users to see whether a driver with a previous conviction really matters to rideshare users.
If you knew your Uber or Lyft driver was convicted of a crime, would you still hitch a ride? Why or why not?
— The Zebra (@TheZebraCo) September 27, 2017
While 39% of respondents said there is absolutely no way they would ever ride with anyone with a criminal history, the other 61% would. But what kinds of convictions would pass Uber and Lyft’s background checks?
Who would say yes? That's very risky in our opinion. Just find a different driver smh
— Scythea & Lanarkine (@ScyAndLana) September 28, 2017
Background Checks for Uber and Lyft Drivers
What do Uber and Lyft look for when conducting a background check? It’s a given that these rideshare companies will check to see if the applicant has a valid driver’s license and rideshare insurance. Both companies require a U.S. driver’s license for at least one year.
Here’s what Uber and Lyft’s driver vetting process generally looks like. (Local and state regulations may require specific criteria for background checks.)
Uber Driver background checks include pulling a Motor Vehicle Record (MVR) on the applicant, in addition to a criminal background check. Although some background checks may differ based on local and state regulations, all drivers must have the following in order to pass:
- In the last three years, no more than three minor moving violations (speeding tickets, failure to obey traffic laws).
- In the last seven years, no major moving violations (DUIs, reckless driving).
- In the last seven years, “[a] criminal record that does not include a conviction for a felony, violent crime, or sexual offense… among other things such as a registration on the U.S. Department of Justice National Sex Offender Public website.”
The background check does not include a credit check.
Uber states on their website that they use a service called Checkr which has partnerships with other on-demand companies, like Instacart, Grubhub, Postmates, and Handy.
Lyft driver background checks are pretty similar. They will pull your MVR and a criminal background check from an undisclosed third party. Applicants must pass the following in order to become a Lyft driver:
- In the last three years, no more than three moving violations (accidents and traffic light violations).
- In the last three years, no major moving violation (driving on a suspended license or reckless driving).
- In the last seven years, no DUI or drug-related violation. No driving-related convictions (hit-and-run or felonies involving a vehicle).
- No violent crimes, felonies, drug-related offenses, sexual offenses, certain theft or property damage offense cases.
It is unclear whether Lyft conducts a credit check.
Did you spot the difference?
Lyft will reject all applicants with convictions of violent crimes, felonies, and sexual offenses. However, Uber may only reject applicants with convictions in the last seven years. Does this mean that there could be Uber drivers with violent crime or sexual offense convictions on the road picking up passengers right now?
I reached out to Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy blog and podcast, for clarification.
“The policy isn’t super clear, but based off the conversations I’ve had with drivers over the years about this, there are certain types of offenses that will disqualify you from driving, period. So, if you’ve been convicted of a felony, sexual assault, etc. you can’t ever drive for Uber,” he said. “There’s not a lot of clear guidance though on what is or isn’t acceptable, and I often hear from drivers who have misdemeanors beyond seven years but still can’t get approved.”
Felony vs. Misdemeanor: What’s the Difference?
Felonies and misdemeanors are categories of crimes defined by state or federal government. Both are criminal offenses, though a misdemeanor is a lesser offense than a felony.
In most states, a misdemeanor can carry up to a year of jail time, though it can also include payment of a fine, probation, community service, and restitution. States often will subdivide misdemeanors into class or degree depending on the severity. A Class A misdemeanor is more severe than a Class B misdemeanor.
Here are some examples of misdemeanors, courtesy of Legal Dictionary:
- Class A: assault resulting in bodily injury, DUI with no bodily injury, burglary, possession of a controlled substance
- Class B: certain types of assault, prostitution, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, certain types of terroristic threats, theft of property worth more than $50 but less than $500
- Class C: certain types of assault, disorderly conduct, leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, issuing a bad check, theft of property worth less than $50
Felonies are the most serious of crimes. These can include physical harm, or the threat of physical harm, to victims, in addition to “white collar crimes” and fraud schemes (think Bernie Madoff). A conviction does not guarantee jail time, but time spent in prison can range from one year to life. Classification of felonies can be in degrees or classes, depending on the state.
Examples of felonies include:
- First degree/Class A: murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, fraud
- Second degree/Class B: aggravated assault, felony assault, arson, manslaughter, possession of a controlled substance, child molestation
- Third degree/Class C: assault and battery, elder abuse, transmission of pornography, driving under the influence, fraud, arson
- Fourth degree/Class D: involuntary manslaughter, burglary, larceny, resisting arrest
depends on the crime bro
— sosig 𖤐 (@fleurlaide) September 28, 2017
Should Passengers Be Concerned about Rideshare Safety?
The short answer is no.
Organizations like Who’s Driving You? are quick to highlight the risks of jumping into a car driven by a rideshare driver. (They’re also an initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association which isn’t exactly keen to the idea of ridesharing apps killing their industry.) According to their website, there have been 30 deaths and 76 assaults attributed to Uber and Lyft drivers.
However, the risks for rideshare drivers may be worse. In 2016, the Washington Post reported on the topic. “The truth is that most of our safety incidents are abusive riders on drivers,” said David Plouffe, Uber’s chief adviser. A quick Google search finds recent news of stabbings, sexual assaults, and even murders.
But these instances that happen are few and far between. In fact, rideshares might even be safer than taxi cabs since there is no cash transaction for most markets. (Uber has tested cash payments in Colorado and overseas.)
So what about those rideshare drivers with criminal backgrounds? Rest assured, Uber and Lyft are making their best attempts to only hire drivers without a history of violent crimes and sexual offenses.
Now, whether you feel comfortable with someone like our anonymous driver with a 13-year-old drug-related misdemeanor is a different story. Should Uber and Lyft notify passengers of these crimes? Or should we give them a second chance?