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Ride-hailing firms’ background checks criticized in wake of Kalamazoo shootings

A leader in the Las Vegas taxi industry says Nevada is playing “Russian roulette” by allowing ride-hailing companies to operate in the state with ineffective background checks.

Jonathan Schwartz, a director with Yellow Checker Star, the second largest taxi group operating in Clark County, said that prior to 2015, when the Nevada Legislature legalized the operation of transportation network companies Uber and Lyft, the state “was the model for the country” by requiring taxi companies to perform FBI fingerprint checks, drug screening and doctor exams on prospective cab drivers.

His remarks come on the heels of a series of shootings in Kalamazoo, Mich., where six people were killed and two wounded by a gunman who worked as a contracted Uber driver.

Jason Brian Dalton, 45, was charged with six counts of murder and two counts of assault following the Saturday shooting spree.

Uber, which began legal operations in Nevada in September, addressed the media and answered questions in a national telephone conference call Monday and said the suspect had no criminal history and there was no way a background check could have detected his criminal intent.

“We are horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo, Mich.,” said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer at Uber. “Our hearts and prayers are with the families of the victims of this devastating crime and those recovering from injuries. We have reached out to the police to help with their investigation in any way that we can.”

But local taxi executives said the weaker standard of background checks conducted by Uber and Lyft damage the credibility of the entire Southern Nevada ground transportation system and put tourists and the public at risk.

“The (Nevada Transportation Authority) refused to complete a study on background checks because the law passed by the ’15 Legislature was designed to give (transportation network companies) a pass on background checks,” Schwartz said.

In Uber’s conference call, Sullivan said Dalton, who gave passengers rides between shootings, had a 4.73 rating on a scale of five. Sullivan said Uber does not intend to modify its background-check policy as a result of the tragedy.

He said the company could remove a driver from the Uber platform immediately if the company receives reports of erratic driving or behavior. The company is testing an online “panic button” system in India, but Sullivan said calling 911 is still the best way to report an emergency or someone endangering the public.

The taxi industry pleaded with legislators to require FBI background checks of contracted ride-hailing drivers before the legislation legalizing operation was approved. Legislation that was approved in May and signed into law in June also required the Nevada Transportation Authority, which regulates Uber and Lyft, to conduct a study of the companies’ background-check systems and compare them with FBI checks.

Transportation Authority Chairwoman Ann Wilkinson in December told the Legislative Commission that the authority did not have the resources to conduct the study. She said the authority determined that the Uber and Lyft checks identified criminal convictions, but not arrests, but could be completed quickly. She said the FBI background checks could take months to complete and they didn’t always report case dispositions, meaning that an acquittal in a case might not be included in a report.

Wilkinson also said the legislation did not allow the authority to require more stringent FBI checks.

“As we have continuously stated, safety needs to come first, but Nevada’s 2015 legislation permitted TNCs on the street with little regulation, at the expense of safety,” Schwartz said. “The 2015 legislation permitted TNCs on the street, without the usual safety precautions, under the mantra of ‘regulation is bad.’ Competition is good, but when it comes to public transportation, sacrificing safety results in the kind of tragedy we just saw in Michigan.”

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter: @RickVelotta

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