Mass. Bill Would Mandate Background Checks for Rideshare Drivers

By Bob Salsberg | March 7, 2016

Massachusetts state lawmakers unveiled a bill that would regulate ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft with a requirement that drivers undergo rigorous criminal background checks but not fingerprinting.

The House Financial Services Committee on March 4 released its version of a bill, initially filed last year by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, which also sets new insurance and pricing guidelines for the companies.

The measure calls for a two-step background check for all drivers, the first to be conducted by the companies and the second by state regulators working in a new Ride for Hire Division created within the state Department of Public Utilities.

San Francisco-based Uber and other services would be required under the plan to carry a minimum $1 million of insurance coverage on each vehicle. The $1 million premium would kick in only when a passenger is in the vehicle or the vehicle is heading to pick up a passenger. The committee said similar insurance requirements have been adopted by 29 other states.

The bill also would keep in place until at least August 2021 a ban on the companies picking up passengers at Boston’s Logan International Airport, a concession to the taxi industry, which has seen its business impacted negatively by the newer services.

“We were presented with a challenge to allow for the expansion and growth of an industry while ensuring consumer protection and public safety,” said Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat who chairs the panel. “We have accomplished that with this legislation.”

Boston police Commissioner William Evans and some legislators have called for fingerprinting of all drivers, a requirement recently imposed on cabbies in the city.

The state’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, Daniel Bennett, said he and Baker did not ask for fingerprinting because of the sophistication of modern criminal checks.

“It’s a nationwide records check,” said Bennett, who had not seen the House bill. “You’re not going to immediately get your license to be a ride-share person.”

At a Statehouse hearing last September, an Uber official said fingerprinting or other more stringent background checks would discourage people from signing up to drive for the company.

Under the legislation, people would be automatically disqualified from driving if they had committed any crimes in the past seven years involving violence or sexual abuse or other crimes such as drunken driving, hit and run, driving with a suspended or revoked license and felony robbery.

Ride-hailing services would be prohibited from ratcheting up prices during weather emergencies, a practice known as surge pricing, and state regulators would monitor them to ensure they don’t set excessively high base fares.

The bill next goes to the full House for a vote.

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