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Austin Council insists Uber drivers be fingerprinted

By   /   December 18, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Waving off pleas from the Austin chief of police and Travis County sheriff, the Austin City Council voted 9-2 on Friday morning to require drivers for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft be fingerprinted beginning Feb. 1.

Unless something changes between now and then, Uber, which has stood firm in opposing fingerprint requirements, will leave Austin, as it did in San Antonio, Las Vegas, Portland and other cities that later reconsidered their ordinances.

(You can read the revised draft of the ordinance here.)

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo asked the City Council not to drive ridesharing companies like Uber out of the city.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo asked the City Council not to drive ridesharing companies like Uber out of the city.

Debbee Hancock, a spokeswoman for Uber in Texas, has given Watchdog no indication the company will agree to Austin’s fingerprinting ordinance. Uber’s background check system has resulted in a safety record that is part of its success, Hancock told Watchdog in an interview in November.

In an email exchange during the council session, Hancock said the only thing that appeared to have changed in the ordinance is the fingerprinting compliance schedule begins after the spring elections.

Mayor Steve Adler joined the majority in spite of a long day attempting to broker several compromises that made their way into the ordinance. To operate in Austin, transportation network companies will have to show they have 25 percent of their drivers fingerprinted by next May 1, half by Aug. 1, 2016, and 99 percent by Feb. 1, 2017.

Several times late Thursday, Adler turned to Ann Kitchen, chairwoman of the council’s Mobility Committee, who drafted the ordinance and asked the council to step back from the “brinkmanship” that would cause Uber and Lyft to leave.

Adler suggested before the Feb. 1 deadline that the city offer incentives such as bonuses for drivers who submitted to fingerprinting before the deadline. But he also called on the city to develop a system of penalties for not complying with the ordinance, although Adler did not specify what the penalties would be.

Kathie Tovo and Delia Garza, the most outspoken members of the majority, at times flashed their impatience with the ridesharing companies. “San Antonio caved to political pressure,” Garza said after hours of testimony and discussion. “I’m not going to be bullied.”

Council member Ellen Troxclair, who has for weeks forcefully defended the right of the ridesharing companies to operate freely in Austin, corrected Garza. Political pressure didn’t reverse the San Antonio ordinance, Troxclair said, “It was an outcry from the public.”

Don Zimmerman, who has also staunchly defended Uber and Lyft on free market principle, joined Troxclair in the minority.

Troxclair pressed Robert Spillar, the city’s director of transportation, to explain why, in a detailed review of the city’s transportation alternatives in August, he did not recommend the city require fingerprinting.

“Driver requirements should mirror TNC driver requirements,” Spillar wrote in his review. “Taxicab companies will be responsible for ensuring their drivers pass the background check, driver history check, complete an in-house training program, are at least 21 years of age, drive a vehicle that pass(es) the inspection standards and are in compliance with the drug and alcohol policy. Taxicab companies will also be required to submit a signed affidavit stating their drivers meet the requirements and will be subject to audits to ensure compliance.”

The majority vote, however, failed to clarify whether fingerprinting was necessary to ensure public safety. Police Chief Art Acevedo, while conceding the added value of fingerprinting, repeatedly told the council ridesharing companies as they currently operate are a public safety asset.

“Data here and around the county shows that TNCs…getting people off the street and home safely helps with our DWI problem, no argument about it,” Acevedo said.

Acevedo also warned the council against believing that fingerprinting is an all-purpose answer to safety concerns. While he left it to the wisdom of the council, Acevedo made clear Austin could not afford to lose ridesharing services.

Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton also called on the city council to reconsider “onerous regulations” that might cause companies to pull out of Austin. Hamilton said ridesharing deserved at least some of the credit for a drop in DWI arrests and alcohol-related crashes in the city and county.

“Drunk driving in Austin is an epidemic,” Hamilton said in a statement he released earlier Thursday. “It is my strong opinion that we ensure that TNC companies remain operational in Austin, as they provide a critical service that is keeping Austin much safer that we were without them,” he said.

Adler asked Spillar if the public was more or less safe with ridesharing companies operating in Austin. After sidestepping the question several times, Spillar said he believed ridesharing companies would be part of Austin’s future.

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Mark Lisheron was a former Austin-based reporter for Watchdog.org.