FOX40 Investigates: Are Background Checks for Ride-Hailing Drivers Strong Enough?

SACRAMENTO -- Ride-hailing giant Uber is facing a class action lawsuit from two women who allege they were both raped by Uber drivers, and say the company is unsafe.

In California, all drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft must undergo criminal background checks. But some say that may not be enough.

"I'm not gonna get in a car with a stranger. The bubble has burst," former user Mary Beth McMann said. "It was probably the scariest hour and a half of my life so far."

It's been more than a year since McMann has used a ride-hailing company. She says the experience she had with an Uber driver who picked her up at the Sacramento International Airport left her scarred.

"It was my last work trip of the year. The gentleman who came to pick me up told me something had happened in his back seat, the seat was cleaned and wet, so sit in the front seat," McMann said.

For the next hour and a half, McMann says, the driver kept touching her leg, talking about lewd sexual behavior and reminiscing on time he spent in prison.

"At that point, I had kind of resigned myself to, 'If I have to jump out of the car, I will,'" she said. "Nothing in it matters to me. My luggage, anything like that."

McMann asked Uber for more information about the driver because she wanted to file a police report. She says they told her his information was private.

In most cases, when an Uber is ordered, the license plate number and first name are shown to help identify the driver.

FOX40 has learned, in this case, the license plate line was blank because the driver had a new car.

Uber confirmed McMann's driver was banned after an internal investigation.

Eventually, McMann got home safely, but the damage was done.

"Whether they like it or not, Uber is the one who I blame. I use the Uber app, I trusted Uber to put me in a safe position, and I was not in a safe position," McMann said.

California law requires that all drivers for ride-hailing companies go through a criminal background check. Sex offenders or those with any violent felony convictions are not allowed to drive. For other crimes, like misdemeanor assault or driving under the influence, background checks only screen for convictions within the last seven years.

In June, Alaric Spence was arrested in North Hollywood, accused of kidnapping and raping a woman who hailed him through the Uber app.

Investigators say Spence is a convicted felon, with five counts of possession of narcotics with intent to sell. But because these convictions were from the 1990's, well past the seven-year limit for non-violent felonies, they would likely not have appeared on his background check.

Yaroub Assad was arrested on Oct. 4 in Mountain House after he was pulled over by a sheriff's deputy on an unspecified stop. The altercation, captured on video, led to Assad's arrest for assault with a deadly weapon on an officer.

Assad told FOX40 he had been driving for Uber earlier that day, though he had been arrested a week earlier for burglary.

FOX40 has learned, like many other industries, Uber doesn't actively track drivers' arrests and they don't require them to report when they have been arrested. The company relies on third parties like law enforcement agencies to alert them of felony arrests.

After Assad's second arrest, he is no longer driving for the company.

"We still have a responsibility to screen out applicants who have had previously bad behavior," California Public Utilities Commissioner Liane Randolph said at a Nov. 9 meeting.

New rules approved by the CPUC at that meeting now require ride hailing companies to do annual background checks for all their drivers. The agency did not take action on tracking or self-reporting arrests.

As for fingerprint background checks, which can check for all criminal history in a driver's adult life, the CPUC opted not to require those for ride hailing drivers.

Proponents have argued fingerprinting background checks are the best way to protect passengers because they allow companies to look at a more complete criminal history.

The CPUC declined to speak with FOX40 on camera, but said it "did not find a demonstratively greater level of safety would be added over and above the current background check protocols."

Uber declined FOX40's request for an on-camera interview, but sent a statement on the CPUC's decision:

“We appreciate the commission’s thoughtful review on this important issue. We are encouraged by their decision which promotes both public safety and economic opportunity for all California drivers.”

"Transportation network companies like Uber, Lyft and others have been given preferential treatment in California," Sacramento Independent Taxi Owners Association spokesperson Dennis Revell said.

While ride-hailing companies are regulated by the CPUC, taxis are regulated by the county.

Revell says taxi drivers in Sacramento County have to undergo fingerprint background checks every year. He believes it's unfair to hold ride-hailing drivers to a different standard.

"We think the same level of scrutiny that is applied to taxicab drivers needs to apply to Uber and Lyft drivers as well," Revell said.

Austin Brown, the executive director of the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy, says California is still adapting to this new industry.

"You never want to say, 'We’re just done. Here’s what it’s going to be forever,'" Brown said. "And there’s going to be a ton of things we’re going to learn as these companies become more wide-spread."

Brown's research shows, overall, companies like Uber and Lyft have a strong safety record. He says ride-hailing companies can offer riders something other companies can't -- accountability.

"I know that I’m being tracked digitally, so if something happens, they know where I was. They know exactly what car I got into, they know exactly who was driving it. That’s a level of accountability that you don’t get in many other parts of life," Brown said.

But for McMann, it's not enough,

She supports the new changes but she wants more accountability. She says she knows the danger and until more changes are made, she refuses to use a ride-hailing service again.

"I'm not going to be in that position again," McMann said. "I hope that nobody else is, either."