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Why Background Checks Aren't Enough For This Former Lyft Driver

Lyft via youtube
According to Austin Police, there have been seven reports of sexual assaults by Uber or Lyft drivers in Austin this year.

Molly is a 26-year-old who lives in Austin. She was laid off from her job in April of this year and given a severance package, but wanted something to do while she looked for a new job. So, she signed up to drive for both transportation network companies in Austin: Uber and Lyft.

Neither Lyft nor Uber requires you to meet with an employee before starting, but Lyft does have you meet with an experienced driver. Drivers are independent contractors, not employees. In late May, Molly – we're not using her full name for privacy reasons – met with one in the Whole Foods parking lot at the Domain. The meeting started out normal. He inspected her car and said he had a few questions.

“That’s where things got really inappropriate," Molly says. 

He told Molly about how when women drink, they can’t say no. "He talked about women pleasuring themselves in his car and touching him," she remembers. "It was really uncomfortable, but I didn't know what else to do except sit there in silence."

Molly says the man told her she needed to be outgoing and friendly when driving for Uber and Lyft.

“So if I find myself feeling down one day, I should pleasure myself before going out and driving. And then he said, ‘I’m going to get inappropriate with you.' And in my head I’m thinking, ‘You’ve already crossed that line. What else is there?’ And then he said, ‘Imagine that somebody gets into your car and does this…’"

Molly said the man began to touch her. "He rubbed my arms first, then across her chest and on her breasts. He rubbed her upper thighs. He stopped and he continued talking, but Molly says she doesn't remember what he was saying.

"I wanted him to get out of my car. I just wanted to explode out of my skin and be anybody but the person this guy just touched.”

On Monday, KUT reported that Austin police have investigated seven alleged cases of sexual assaults by drivers for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft this year. Sexual assault allegations have been made against three drivers of traditional cabs in that time. It’s one reason sexual assault prevention groups support a proposal up at the Austin City Council today: requiring fingerprint background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers. Those checks are already required for traditional cab drivers. 

That five stars keeps him on the road, keeps him driving, keeps him riding, keeps him in this position of power.

  Before she left, Molly says he showed her how to use the Lyft mobile app. When you use these apps, passengers can rate drivers on a one to five star scale. And drivers can rate passengers.

“Because I was technically giving him a ride during the mentor orientation, we had to rate each other. And he had me get out my phone and he said, 'Now give me five stars' and so I gave him the five stars. And that five stars keeps him on the road, keeps him driving, keeps him riding, keeps him in this position of power," Molly says.

The inspection ended and Molly drove away. She didn’t notice she was crying until she looked down and saw her hands were shaking on the steering wheel.

“And I was just trying to imagine how am I going to tell people I love what happened," Molly says. "How do I live with myself moving forward knowing that I didn’t get out of the car or I didn’t say something or I didn’t run away, you know, all of the ways you think you might act in that situation, why didn’t I do that?”

Reporting to Lyft

Molly reached out to an online Lyft community board asking people what she should do. Lyft saw her post and responded to her within the hour. The next day, someone from the company called her.

“They had one consistent person talking to me so I didn’t have to tell the story over and over and over again. She validated me, didn’t make me feel like I was crazy or anything," Molly says.

The woman from Lyft told her they disabled the driver’s account which the company confirmed with KUT.  Then, Molly received a message on the same online community board. It was from her mentor driver.

“It was sickening," Molly says. "I didn’t want him to message me. There’s somethings where apologies just can’t heal. And he just needed to disappear and he didn't do it. He came back and it just felt like a violation.”

In the note, the man apologized for making what he called “crass and inappropriate jokes.”

“I had just done another session with someone who joked with me a lot and I guess I was still in that mindset," he wrote, adding that it was not his intention to make her feel bad and that he wanted to say he was sorry.

“But he didn’t mention inappropriately touching me, basically assaulting me," Molly says. "That really bothered me as well.”

A message KUT sent to the driver's account on the message board was not returned by deadline.

An Unreported Crime

Molly says she thought a lot about filing a police report. But when she told people what happened, "there was almost this air of, 'It could’ve been worse. It wasn’t that bad.' And even if that wasn’t the intention, it still diminished in my opinion, what happened to me. It made me feel like ‘Well, why can’t you just get over it?'”

Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
A Lyft sign placed near 12th and Chicon streets ahead of the Austin City Council's debate on increased regulation ridesharing companies, including expanded background checks for drivers.

 Molly says she’s still considering filing a police report. She’s not alone in her hesitation. Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. According to the National Institute of Justice, only 26 percent of sexual assaults between 1992 and 2000 were reported to police. UT Austin Professor Noel Busch Armendariz studies sexual assault. She says there are many reasons sexual assault survivors don’t report to police.

“They believe the veracity of the story is going to be questioned," Busch-Armendariz says. "Coming through the criminal justice system, all the way through it, is very, very difficult. That often, the juries and judges and general public want forensic evidence when forensic evidence is often not there.” 

Molly thought to herself, 'I got him off the Lyft platform.' So she tried to not think about it anymore. Molly drove for Uber and Lyft for a month before she stopped.

“I didn’t like people being next to me that I didn’t know," Molly says.

Are Fingerprint Background Checks the Solution?

The Austin City Council could vote today on new regulations for TNCs, including a proposal for mandatory fingerprint-based background checks for drivers. But Molly says, to her, finger print background checks aren’t enough.

“Fingerprint and criminal background checks, they tell you what a person has been caught doing," she says. "They don’t tell you what a person is capable or wants to do. There needs to be more screening from both organizations. Fingerprinting is the first step. But the second step is having direct contact with people you’re putting on the roads.”

Molly says a fingerprint background check probably wouldn’t have prevented her situation, "but I think if someone had sat for two minutes and talked to this guy, he would not have ever been in that position." 

Uber and Lyft both oppose fingerprint background checks. Lyft stands behind its current background check system—which checks municipal, county, state and federal records. According to the company, 80 percent of its drivers are part-time. And the cost of fingerprinting could deter those drivers from signing up. Lyft does not operate in cities that require fingerprint background checks.

Professor Noel Busch-Armendariz at UT says any information is good information if it keeps a community safe. But fingerprinting Uber and Lyft drivers won’t end sexual assaults.

“If we want to do something about holding perpetrators and offenders accountable we need to think about a community wide perspective. Really — how do we tackle that problem? By telling ourselves the truth about under-reporting, about how we treat victims in the criminal justice system," says Busch-Armendariz. 

On Wednesday, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton released a statement opposing the proposed regulations. He says TNCs have played a part in reducing DWIs in Austin, where drinking and driving is “an epidemic.” If the city council can’t make a decision on the proposal today, the vote could be pushed back to January, or beyond.

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