New technology and better background checks recommended for Uber in Pennsylvania
Better background checks and alert systems that are easier to use among recommendations from the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, which audited the ride-share company.
Though Uber is meeting Pennsylvania requirements designed to protect its passengers, the ride-share company could do more to ensure passenger safety, a state audit has found.
More timely notification of driver criminal offenses, better data gathered during trips, and complaint reporting that’s easier to use were among the recommendations from the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission in its first audit of a ride-share company operating in Pennsylvania.
The findings came after a five-month audit of safety oversight including how drivers sign up for the Uber app, how the company conducts background checks, how drivers are evaluated, and how the company handles customer complaints.
The PUC, which regulates all ride-share activity outside Philadelphia, called the audit the first of its kind nationwide. The Philadelphia Parking Authority is responsible for regulating the industry in the city, but the PUC’s findings would still apply to Philadelphia.
“The process concerns and the issues and the recommendations we raised should be universal,” said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, the PUC’s spokesperson.
The PUC made recommendations but did not mandate any changes. Uber said it would explore incorporating many of the PUC’s recommendations. A similar audit of Lyft, the second largest ride-share company operating in Pennsylvania, is likely soon, Hagen-Frederiksen said.
The PUC concluded that Uber’s background check of drivers is hindered in part by a lack of transparency in Pennsylvania, which does not share arrest information with companies without a formal right-to-know request. Uber has a three-tiered background check that looks at a driver’s credit and driving history, along with a criminal background check.
Uber is lobbying state legislators to change laws regulating access to arrest information but rejected PUC’s recommendation that it use fingerprinting, arguing that fingerprint records can be incomplete and inaccurate.
Uber drivers have complained that decisions to suspend or ban a driver from the app are made with little opportunity for a driver to offer a defense. In 2018, Uber banned a number of Pennsylvania drivers over minor drug offenses that, in some cases, happened decades ago. The decision to bar these drivers from using the app was subsequently reversed.
Passengers can file Uber complaints several ways, including an emergency button on the app that automatically connects the rider with 911 and an option to share real-time information and driver information with anyone with internet access. But the PUC found those tools, available by tapping a black-and-white shield in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, might be missed by a passenger in distress.
Uber also said it was adding functions to its app, as recommended by the PUC. The emergency button now automatically transmits location and vehicle information to a 911 operator in several Pennsylvania counties, including Bucks and Chester, and would be available in Philadelphia in 2020.
Uber has a reporting system in place that can prompt an investigation of a driver and, depending on the seriousness of the incident, could lead to a driver being removed from the app. The PUC found, however, that most complaints from riders have “insufficient information.” Even in the case of violence or sexual harassment, it may take more than one incident to cause a driver to be barred.
It’s also uncommon for there to be strong substantiating evidence with less serious allegations against a driver, such as bad driving or verbal altercations, so Uber waits for a pattern of behavior before taking action against a driver. During the review’s five-month period, 10 percent of all complaints were related to safety; 5 percent led to permanent deactivation.
The PUC recommended Uber use devices like dashboard cameras or additional trip data that the app could gather, like a vehicle’s speed, that could corroborate passenger complaints. The latter was put in place in January, Uber reported. The PUC also recommended Uber share information about drivers who have been flagged for safety issues with other ride-share companies.
Uber, in its response, said it would look into using dashboard cameras but expressed concern about sharing noncriminal driver complaints with other ride-share companies, saying that could expose the company to legal action from former drivers.
Since 2015, the PUC has received 20 formal complaints against Uber, the agency reported. The most common offense is an Uber driver failing to identify the vehicle’s affiliation with the company. Investigators have cited 10 drivers in that time for operating with lapsed registrations or insurance.
The state legislature fully legalized ride-share companies in Pennsylvania in 2016, and the audit, while the first the PUC has conducted of either Uber or Lyft, is similar to the oversight the agency exerts over other utilities.