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A Citywide Vote on Ride-Hailing App Regulations Could Be Coming

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune
A group is seeking 20,000 signatures for a petition to put ride-hailing app regulation on the ballot in Austin.

Supporters of Uber and Lyft are planning to collect at least 20,000 signatures to force the Austin City Council to back off new regulations it adopted for ride-hailing apps or put the issue to a public vote.

After this month’s 9-2 council vote in favor of new regulations, a coalition including local groups Austin Music People and ATX Safer Streets, as well as California-based tech lobbying firm TechNet, is leading the effort. The group argues the regulations, which seeks to phase-in fingerprint background checks for nearly all drivers for ride-hailing companies over the next year, are unnecessary because both Uber and Lyft already perform internal background checks on new drivers.

“They check information at the state and local level and across state lines. This has proven to be effective in over 200 cities where they’re operating,” says Caroline Joiner with TechNet. “And there are also lots of aspects of the ridesharing platform that really help ensure passenger safety, things like real-time GPS tracking.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who has championed the new requirements, has said the city wants to create a level regulatory playing field for other services including taxis and limos, which do require fingerprint background checks.

The new regulations also expand vehicle inspection requirements for drivers, institute an annual operating fee for ride-hailing apps, increase data reporting to the city and put in place “geofencing” requirements during large events like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. Uber and Lyft have left cities that have instituted similar requirements – namely San Antonio, where both apps suspended services over fingerprint background checks, but ultimately agreed to the city’s phase-in optional fingerprint checks.

At a press conference prior to the council vote, Mayor Steve Adler said the increased background checks were necessary, in part, because ofreports of sexual assaults by drivers.

"The bottom line is, I did not want to choose and do not want to choose between two very real safety concerns," said Adler. "The safety of drivers, specifically women, driving in a car alone and the safety concerns associated with our community and a technology and device which is at least anecdotally taking impaired drivers off of the streets."

Still, Joiner says, Austinites have embraced ride-hailing companies and law enforcement has touted the apps’ impact on reducing drunken driving in Austin.

“We’ve got our police chief and our sheriffs talking about how ridesharing is saving lives by keeping drunk drivers off the road. And that’s why we were really surprised and disappointed that city council approved the regulations that will essentially force these companies out of Austin,” Joiner said.

Prior to the council’s vote, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton said in a public letter that, since ride-hailing apps were legalized in Austin last year, DWI arrests have decreased 16 percent and DWI-related crashes have dropped by about a quarter.

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