The taxi industry and other foes of transportation network companies are sure to jump on a recent news story about a Chicago Lyft driver who passed the company’s background check, even though he had a federal conviction for “aiding an individual with ties to terrorism.” Expect the overheated statements from the taxi cartel, but don’t pay them any mind when they arrive.

According to WGN-TV in Chicago, Raja L. Khan “spent 30 years as a Chicago cab driver and attempted to reinstate his license. He was denied by the city and by ride share company Uber.”

Lyft said the independent company that handles its background checks missed the conviction and that it’s an isolated incident. Nevertheless, the San Francisco-based company said it is “re-running background checks for Chicago drivers” and “will also voluntarily allow the city of Chicago to audit our background checks on an ongoing basis at Lyft’s expense.” In the wake of the incident, Chicago regulators have cited Lyft and are imposing fines of up to $2 million.

No one was harmed, but the situation understandably creates public concern about the reliability of background checks. But it’s the kind of human error that plagues any kind of system. There’s little more to the incident than human error and, indeed, it was another ridesharing company that caught the problem. The incident doesn’t undermine the safety of Lyft or this emerging industry.

After a tragic accident in San Francisco involving an Uber driver, taxi officials called for the city to regulate the TNCs tightly or even shut them down. But taxi owners will use any excuse to shut out competitors that are doing a remarkable job serving customers and providing a safe app-based transportation alternative. By the way, TNCs have had remarkable success in reducing drunken-driving incidents, which highlights the overall safety benefits they provide.

As I wrote for the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2014:

A search of ‘taxi’ and ‘car crashes’ will reveal a long list of troubling news stories. In San Francisco (in 2013), an Ohio couple died after a cab with bad brakes slammed into a concrete pillar. A year earlier there, a taxi driver who caused a deadly crash was identified as a man convicted in a notorious murder case, yet he passed the background checks.

Or, to take a more extreme case, in February 2013, licensed and vetted traditional cabbie Kashif Bashir of Alexandria, Virginia, shot an Alexandria police officer in the head when the officer responded to a call about Bashir harassing a store clerk and idling suspiciously in front of her storefront. Bashir was later cleared of attempted murder charges on grounds of insanity. Neither the city’s background check nor his taxi company employer had caught his long history of mental illness and alarming behavior.

The point is that a city-run taxicab background system is not necessarily a failsafe, either. The TNCs have every reason to scrutinize their drivers, to protect the safety of passengers and to avoid fines and citations. But it’s an imperfect world and mistakes happen, especially in a massive industry employing tens of thousands of drivers nationwide.

It’s best to do as Lyft and Chicago are doing here – dealing with any errors and using new procedures to assure they don’t happen again. Any attempt to tar a company or an entire industry for a modest mistake is irresponsible and almost certainly motivated by concerns about competition rather than a fastidious devotion to safety.

Image by Andrey_Popov


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