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After Kalamazoo shooting, possibility of Uber regulations in state at a standstill

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
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Jason Brian Dalton had a 4.73 out of 5 star rating on Uber. Dalton had passed the ride-hailing company’s background checks. Dalton had no prior criminal history.

Dalton, 45, is accused of killing six people and injuring two others in Kalamazoo on Feb. 20 while picking up Uber passengers and collecting fares. He is charged with six counts of murder, two counts of assault with intent to murder, and eight felony firearm violations.

While his crime is the most extreme, Dalton isn’t the first Uber driver to be charged with committing a crime on the job in Michigan. On March 18, two Uber drivers from East Lansing were charged with committing several sexual assaults in January and February. In April 2015, an Uber driver allegedly “demanded money or a sex act” from a passenger in Ann Arbor.  

Uber has agreed to help police with the investigation of Dalton, and has been notified of the arrests of the East Lansing drivers. The Michigan state government has struggled to regulate the company on a statewide level to prevent incidents like these from occurring in the future.

Uber is a ride-sharing application that serves as an alternative to taxis and cabs. Users can download the application onto their phone, link their credit card information to the app, and request a ride with the touch of a button.

Since its launch in 2009, Uber has expanded into over 300 cities across the country and world. In Michigan, Uber serves Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Flint, and Kalamazoo.

Uber has a Code of Conduct, which notes its “zero-tolerance regarding all forms of discrimination, harassment, and abuse.” On the app, riders can rate their drivers using anywhere from zero to five stars, and users are able to see their driver’s average rating before the driver arrives.

To become an Uber driver, applicants must provide their phone numbers, social security numbers, e-mails, address, proof of car insurance, and vehicle registration. Uber uses Checkr, a company that performs background checks using local and federal data.

Over the past few years, the Michigan Senate and House have considered bills calling for several kinds of regulation on the ride-hailing services, but none of them have become state law.

State Sen. Rick Jones, who sits at the forefront of the effort to regulate Uber in the state, told Michigan Radio that a host of lobbyists for Uber have made it difficult for the state Legislature to pass any pieces of legislation. Legislation has been stalled, even after the Kalamazoo shootings, Jones said.

Unlike taxi companies, Uber does not require potential drivers to provide fingerprints, which can allow background checks linked to databases from the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Unlike taxi companies, Uber does not require potential drivers to provide fingerprints, which can allow background checks linked to databases from the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Uber officials have consistently said the company does not have a need for fingerprint-based background checks. The company has also said implementing this kind of background check would make the on-boarding process to become a driver more lengthy and difficult.

Jones said he believes more extensive background checks for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft would be beneficial for the users of the services.

“As a former police officer of 31 years, I believe that there must be a very thorough background check on Uber drivers – make sure their cars are safe and they have to come under some regulation,” Jones said. “They’re simply not being responsible corporate citizens.”

Jones pushed a bill in the Michigan Senate last year that would have required ride-hailing services to follow the same requirements as limousine drivers, which includes an inspection of the vehicle by the Michigan Department of Transportation. The legislation is currently stalled.

In 2015, as legislation was being considered, Michael White, the general manager of Uber in Michigan, said the proposed regulations on Uber are outdated and don’t coincide with the company’s goals, MLive reported:

"We want there to be legislation that establishes a standard. The problem with this legislation is it's trying to force transportation network companies into the old model of limousine companies, and you undermine all the progress that we've been able to make when you do that," White said.

Uber did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the span of several weeks.

Dave Sutton, spokesman for “Who’s Driving You?”, a campaign organized by the Taxicab, Limousine, & Paratransit Association, told Michigan Radio conducting fingerprint-based background checks would be “the single most effective measure to reducing the sexual and physical assaults that passengers have been undergoing.”

“No one should be riding with an individual with a history of violence, whether it’s physical or sexual; that is not an appropriate individual to be driving a passenger,” Sutton said.

Sutton said through fingerprint background checking, the federal government can access a deeper level of a driver’s criminal history. Uber currently uses third-party background-checking organizations to investigate their potential employees — a practice that Sutton says can only go back seven or 10 years into the history of a potential employee.

But it’s important to note that Dalton himself had no criminal record or history. Sullivan, Uber’s security officer, said the Kalamazoo incident by no means warrants such a hefty background check.

“I don't think that we will change our screening processes for ... new driver partners as a result of this incident,” Sullivan said in late February.

The problem that arose from the incident in Kalamazoo is not focused on the issue of insuring fingerprint background checks, Sutton said, but rather other safety measures the company could take in the future.

Sutton pointed to the fact that a passenger who had ridden with Dalton several hours before to the shooting alerted not only the police, but Uber of Dalton’s erratic, dangerous driving.

The passenger, named Matt Mellen, told WWMT that he had contacted the police, his fiancée posted a warning on Facebook, and Mellen was only able to email Uber because the company doesn’t have an emergency line.

"I'm upset because I tried contacting Uber after I had talked to the police, saying that we needed to get this guy off the road," Mellen said.

However, Uber maintains that the company does not have the ability to provide an emergency number, and 911 is the best number to call when faced with an emergency.

While statewide and national discussions of regulating Uber and other ride-hailing services isn’t anything new, Sutton says he believes the incident in Kalamazoo is a wake-up call.

“What has been going on in Michigan has been an eye-opener, and a lot of states and cities across the country are really looking at this,” Sutton said. “It’s kind of like a watershed incident.”

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