Chicago's new ride-sharing services market their drivers as friendly and safe, asserting they have passed stringent criminal background checks.
But a Tribune investigation revealed that one of the companies, Uber, did not check some of the criminal records of its drivers, allowing thousands of drivers to ferry passengers for months, despite not knowing whether or not they had felony convictions.
The company's lack of oversight came to light when the Tribune contacted it to profile its drivers. Uber, which has a ride-sharing option called Uber X, presented one driver as an example, but declined to give the Tribune a complete list of its drivers.
The Tribune later determined that the driver had a 2010 Cook County felony conviction for residential burglary, which should have barred him from partnering with the company.
After the Tribune asked about the driver's record, company officials "deactivated" him and acknowledged their multistate background checks have missed an "unknown" number of county-level criminal convictions, including the Chicago ride-share driver's felony.
In a public announcement Wednesday, Uber, one of the largest ride-sharing providers in the country, said it now has an expanded policy on background checks that would include federal and county-level reviews for new and existing drivers, a process that will involve redoing thousands of screenings.
On Friday, Uber issued a statement apologizing for missing the felony conviction of one of its Chicago Uber X drivers in its background check process. “We are sincerely sorry for this error, and want to assure all riders that we are taking the necessary steps to fix it and build the safest option for consumers,” the statement read.
Uber also posted its expanded background check policy online.
Concerns over consumer protections in the budding industry prompted the Emanuel administration last week to declare a "regulatory vacuum" and propose new rules that would, in part, spell out what commercial ride-sharing companies are required to do in Chicago to ensure their drivers are safe.
The move follows the enactment last year of similar-minded regulations in California, which also sought to regulate services officials deemed did not "fit neatly" into conventional taxi or limousine models but should be subject to some measure of oversight.
"It has been more of a free-for-all at this point," said Hani Mahmassani, director of Northwestern University's transportation center. "But I think cities and states are now trying to find that compromise, that sweet spot, that is going to ensure public safety, while enabling new mobility services."
Corey Owens, Uber's head of global public policy, said in an interview Thursday that the company's new background check policy has been in the works since January after the company encountered an increasing number of gaps in its multistate search upon expanding into new markets across the country.
"It increasingly became something that we just considered unacceptable, ourselves," said Owens. "That if we're going to try to pioneer this new kind of transportation model, we take it upon ourselves to ensure that Uber users are dealing only with the safest drivers."
Varying driver screens
The ride-sharing industry first rolled into Chicago in spring 2013. Attempting to set themselves apart from taxi cab companies, the commercial ride-sharing services promoted themselves as hip and convenient, with rides provided by nonprofessional drivers using their personal vehicles. Customers use smartphone apps to order rides, which are offered through Uber X, Lyft, Sidecar and other companies competing for business against highly regulated traditional taxicab operators.
Lyft and Sidecar, two other popular ride-sharing companies in Chicago that rely on nonprofessional drivers using their personal vehicles, also advertise on their websites that their drivers undergo background checks.
All three ride-sharing companies use different third-party companies to run background checks on driver applicants.
Lyft co-founder John Zimmer said its checks consist of screening drivers at the county, state, and in some cases, federal levels. Sidecar did not respond to questions about whether it checked specifically at the county level for convictions. But the company that performs Sidecar's checks, RedRidge Verification Services, said it conducts county, state and federal background searches on drivers.
Which companies the ride-sharing services hire to do the searches, and what level of detail they request of them, may provide different results, experts say. Screening companies can differ on which databases they use to supplement the background check process and the databases may overlap or may not be all inclusive, said Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.
In addition to checking motor vehicle records and the sex offender registry, Sorenson said, "a thorough background check includes checking the counties where you know the individual has been, lived and gone to school (and) adding in something like a national database to cast a wider net across the U.S."
The companies say rider safety is paramount and that they don't allow drivers to have felony convictions within seven years of applying. Although there are variations in how the companies treat certain offenses, all three also said they disqualify drivers for major driving infractions within at least the past three years.
Lyft, Uber and Sidecar declined to provide the Tribune with a list of their Chicago drivers.
One driver that Uber did provide, Tadeusz Szczechowicz, 24, of Burbank, pleaded guilty to felony residential burglary in Cook County in 2010 and received a two-year probation sentence.
He was also convicted of misdemeanor criminal damage to property in 2009 and another misdemeanor for breaking into a 2002 Toyota for a GPS and satellite radio receiver in Homer Glen in 2008. Szczechowicz has a history of speeding tickets and had his license suspended twice in 2008 for having two moving violations within a 24-month period and for the criminal trespass to vehicle conviction. Only the felony conviction, however, should have disqualified Szczechowicz to be an Uber ride-share driver under the company's rules.
When asked about his record, Szczechowicz denied it was him and hung up the phone. "I think you have the wrong person," he said.
Uber officials on Thursday, however, confirmed Szczechowicz had been a partner until they severed ties with him this week.
Although Szczechowicz's conviction was not caught in their background check, Uber officials said the multistate screening they have been using has caught many county criminal convictions, including some in Cook County.
"To be clear the Uber X drivers in Chicago have gone through a very comprehensive check that we believe in and we are just trying to close that small remaining gap," said Andrew Macdonald, regional general manager of Uber Midwest. But Uber officials said they did not know how many county convictions they may have missed.
Uber said gaps in background checks exist elsewhere, pointing to the city of Chicago, which usually does not check national databases for taxi driver screens. City officials said Thursday they plan to start instituting those checks this spring.
New city proposal
Chicago's proposed ordinance would require the ride-sharing companies to rule out drivers who have been convicted of a felony and certain misdemeanors within the past five years. They would also have to dismiss drivers with serious driving infractions, such as a DUI, within the past year.
Ride-sharing companies however would still be responsible for the background checking process. The proposal does not specify which jurisdictions would be included in a background check.
Officials said the companies could impose even stricter policies and would be subjected to record-keeping requirements for three years and periodic city audits. Under the city's regulatory proposal, ride-sharing companies would be required to check the eligibility of drivers annually.
The proposal also calls for the companies to display the name and photo of the driver, a picture of the vehicle and license plate number on their apps and websites.
"We're trying to put in place a structure where we are holding these ride-share companies accountable for making sure that their drivers are trained and safe." said Michael Negron, Emanuel's chief of policy.
If approved by the City Council, the ordinance would go into effect 90 days after passage.
Vivanco is a RedEye reporter. Dizikes is a Tribune reporter.