Cities' checks of Uber, Lyft drivers appear to be hit or miss

By JEFFREY MEITRODT , STAR TRIBUNE
December 17, 2016 - 9:42 PM

Elizabeth Archie got approved to drive for Uber last year even though she had three convictions for theft and an assault arrest on her record. The Mall of America and Macy’s had banned her as a customer.

Then in April, while driving a passenger in south Minneapolis, Archie ran a red light and crashed into another car. Her vehicle was totaled and remains undriveable. Archie, who broke her wrist in the crash, said she and her passenger were lucky to get out of the crash alive.

The company, Archie said, invited her to resume driving.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have made it easy for people with criminal records or bad driving histories to work for Uber and rival Lyft by enacting the least restrictive rules of any of the nation’s top 25 metro areas, a Star Tribune review of local laws found. The standards that exist are mostly self-enforced by the companies, and drivers who shouldn’t qualify can find ways around the rules.

Among those approved to drive here: convicted felons, drivers with as many as four drunken driving convictions and men convicted of crimes related to assaulting their wives and girlfriends. Most continue to drive for the companies, which now provide more rides in the Twin Cities than traditional taxis.

“It is just terrifying,” Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang said. “These are people we should be protecting the public from.”

When Uber and Lyft came to the Twin Cities in 2013, the companies convinced local officials that tough regulations would make it hard to sign up enough drivers. As a result, the standards are either identical to those Uber and Lyft proposed or, in some cases, more flexible. For instance, Lyft proposed barring any driver with more than one DWI conviction, but both cities allow drivers if they have not been convicted or penalized for drunken driving in the past three years. Most large cities disqualify anyone with a DWI conviction in the past seven years, records show.

Both Uber and Lyft say they typically follow local driver standards. Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the company has rejected thousands of local applicants, but she acknowledged that some drivers who shouldn’t qualify have slipped through.

After the Star Tribune shared its findings with the companies and local officials, Uber removed 11 local drivers, including Archie, noting that disqualifying offenses had somehow been missed during the application process. Nine other drivers with problematic records already had been removed by the company because of complaints and other issues. Whaling said the company is taking steps to make sure lapses do not reoccur.

“We took your inquiry very seriously and did a full review of every single driver so we could have a full understanding of what we did internally and where mistakes were made,” Whaling said. “As a result of this thorough review and as a result of working with you, we are making changes in Minneapolis in terms of training and re-emphasizing our standards.”

Lyft declined to address findings regarding specific drivers, but a spokeswoman said applicants “undergo rigorous screenings.”

Almost a third of the 176 Uber or Lyft drivers the Star Tribune identified have been convicted of offenses that violated Uber’s or Lyft’s hiring standards or would have disqualified them from driving for the companies in other cities, records show.

Police reports show that five of those drivers were later involved in crashes while working for the companies. An Uber driver who spent a year on probation for trespassing in 2010 was arrested in August and charged with a felony after he allegedly abducted a teenage girl in an apparent effort to rape her, police records show. An Uber driver with an extensive rap sheet was arrested in Washington County on a fugitive warrant after he fled felony assault charges in Illinois.

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