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Uber impact on New York's taxi business
02:29 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter: @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Danny Cevallos says the complaints about Uber's driver screening system should be put in perspective

He says the convenience and responsiveness of a system like Uber's is a major advance

CNN  — 

According to a complaint filed Wednesday by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, Uber, the revolutionary ride-hailing service, hired several drivers with criminal records ranging from murder to child abuse, due to flaws in Uber’s background-checking system. If the allegations are true, Uber has permitted untold numbers of convicted criminals to drive under its aegis, with direct access to unsuspecting riders.

Danny Cevallos

I’m fine with that.

That’s because I not only use Uber, I am addicted to Uber. I’m typing this from the back of an UberX right now – no kidding. Say hi to my driver James, from Levittown. I would Uber-ize my whole life if I could; I dream of a world where I can summon on my phone roaming objects – everything from a burrito to aspirin – and then watch them inch their way toward me on a map on my iPhone screen.

I’m not alone, either, and legions of entrepreneurs and start-ups know people like me are out there. We are in the midst of a boom in the “sharing” economy, and the peer-to-peer model is appearing in more than just rides.

The invisible hand, along with the invisible iPhone and invisible wallet have all spoken: Peer-to-peer transactions are the future. Of course, critics – usually parties heavily invested in the old way of doing things – are fighting progress for no other reason than self-preservation.

Attacking Uber for its background checks and safety is a thinly veiled example.

And are cabs much better? Even if the background check system used by Uber is inferior to the Live Scan used by taxi regulators, that’s only one facet of safety. Uber is quick to point out that no background check system is perfect anyway. The company says it conducts comprehensive criminal background checks and reviews drivers’ motor vehicle records throughout their time with Uber.


In fairness, the San Francisco District Attorney’s allegations against Uber are not only that it permitted people with criminal records to become drivers, but that Uber additionally touted an “industry leading” background check system.

The DA’s office calls this deceptive, and Uber itself has withdrawn the claim. Is that an admission of deception? Maybe, but it equally could be perfectly legal “puffery,” that Uber decided was easier to withdraw than fight. There is a thin legal line between false advertising, and puffery, undue praise that is an ubiquitous marketing strategy.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Uber’s background check process did permit convicted criminals to become Uber drivers, has Uber actually created an unsafe environment for customers?

Let’s not be naïve: throughout history, every single adoption of new technology comes with the price tag of increased risk. If you want progress, you’re going to have to give up a little safety.

Do you like cars? Have you driven or ridden in one in the last week? They are statistically one of the most dangerous innovations in history. We know it, and we don’t care, because our society is dependent on them.

In fact, about the only thing more dangerous than a car today … is a car back when cars were new. According to Charlie Zegeer at the Highway Research Center at the University of North Carolina, the largest number of pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles … in the early 1930s, with almost 16,000 pedestrians killed per year.

Just to give you an idea, the current number hovers around 4,000, and there are a lot more cars speeding down the highway today than there were then.

Sadly, killed pedestrians were not even willing adopters of cutting-edge technology like the Model T – they were unwilling laboratory victims of this bleeding-edge experiment known as the automobile.

Airplanes are often called the safest form of travel, but back when they were new technology, they were anything but. The Wright brothers were the first in flight – and the first in flight fatalities, too.

In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt came very close to riding on the first fatal flight. Would you feel safer about our President perched on the Wright Brothers’ wood-and -canvas Flyer? Or would you prefer the President travel on Air Force One? The answer is obvious … even though Air Force One owes its very existence to the Wright Brothers’ more dangerous contraptions.

Innovation involves risk

Any technological or business innovation brings with it some increased risk.

Whether it’s the horseless cab of the past or the driverless car of the future, new technology always involves some human sacrifice. When that happens, society applies a simple balancing test: Does the present or future utility outweigh the risk and collateral carnage? If it doesn’t, we outlaw it outright. If it does, then the innovation is permitted to survive and evolve … and the government next figures out how to tax and regulate the innovators.

And with respect to Uber drivers, since when did the mere fact of a criminal conviction become a bar to all future employment? If it is, we have some serious problems: studies suggest that nearly one-third of American adults have been arrested by age 23.

The principles in the justice system of rehabilitation and re-entry are premised on the idea that released convicts can and should re-enter the job force. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Criminal History Record Information Act provides that employers may only use an employee’s previous criminal history for limited purposes in making hiring decisions.

Felony and misdemeanor convictions may only be considered to the extent to which they relate to suitability for the position for which the employee applied. In theory, convicts who pay their debt should be permitted to return to society.

We should not be so blind or elitist to presume we live our lives as consumers or employees completely insulated from anyone with a misdemeanor conviction.

Any criminal defense attorney, prosecutor, or especially probation officer will tell you, you probably already interacted with a felon today and didn’t know it. You may not be among the one-third who has an arrest record, but you surely interact with someone who is.

And why such high standards for Uber drivers? Sure, they have “access” to children and other vulnerable populations, but so do lots of jobs. And by the way, who’s sending their grade-schoolers on rides alone in an Uber? If an Uber driver has unrestrained access to a toddler, aren’t the parents also to blame?

Moreover, in evaluating the potential threat, is anyone more digitally monitored than an Uber driver? When you summon an Uber car, a rider is provided with the driver’s face, name, their cellphone number, make and model of car, and your entire ride is recorded for posterity via GPS.

If someone’s going to start a crime wave, using an Uber driving job as a platform is uber-dumb. About the only person more tracked than an Uber driver is a defendant on house arrest with an ankle monitor.

Are cabs better?

Every other mode of transportation has advanced with the times, but taxi cabs’ entrenched monopoly has hardly led to a better consumer experience. According to colleague and accident attorney Jeff Wong, cabs in Philadelphia are only required to maintain the bare minimum in bodily injury insurance.

That’s from an industry in the business of transporting bodies. That’s hardly a business model consumed with consumer protection. When was the last time your cab had bottled water and mints, and a phone charger? Most of my Uber rides do, including this one. Thanks, James from Levittown. Five stars for sure.

And before you call me a shill for Uber, I’ve got some complaints. After all, complaints are both the bane and the glory of any free market. Contrast that to any monopoly or government service, where complaints are little more than inconsequential white noise. But if you want to persecute Uber, go after that “surge pricing” – when Uber raises rates ostensibly because demand cannot be met by the number of drivers on the road.

I don’t ever wonder about the criminal history of my Uber driver, but I sure do notice when prices are surging, for some arbitrary reason. I’d rather my driver have a 2008 weed possession case than pay 1.5x the normal fare because it’s a cloudy day.

Actually, forget I said that – don’t investigate the surge pricing. Frankly, I’m so hooked on Uber, I’ll take the surge pricing. .. along with the potential criminals, too. This is one innovation that, as with many others in history, is worth the cost, and the risk.

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