Would it surprise you to learn that government sometimes asks people to do the impossible?

Last year, Nevada passed legislation that allows transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft to operate legally in the state. TNCs are an increasingly popular alternative to traditional taxi or limo services that let individuals use a smartphone app to summon a ride.

As part of the legislation, the Nevada Transportation Authority was required to do a study about the relative effectiveness of different types of background checks performed on TNC drivers. While Uber and Lyft use a name-based background check, others have advocated requiring fingerprint background checks instead. Uber and Lyft maintain that fingerprint checks are unduly burdensome and have suspended operations in jurisdictions where these checks are required.

Are fingerprint background checks any more effective than name-based checks? It’s clearly an important question, and the Nevada Legislature is to be commended for seeking to actually study the matter. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the legislation asking for the study did not actually include the money or authority needed for the NTA to carry it out:

Transportation Authority Chairwoman Ann Wilkinson acknowledged Monday that the authority’s report to the Legislative Commission is incomplete, but she delivered a chart to its members outlining some of the differences in place between how regulators oversee ride-hailing drivers and those who work for bus, taxi and limousine companies…

Wilkinson said in December her agency lacks the authority to require FBI testing of any existing state-approved network company drivers. The legislation also didn’t provide money to pay for FBI background checks.

She said there are only 10 drivers that have undergone both checks — not a large enough sample to reach a fair policy conclusion.

Well, you can’t have everything. As I’ve written before, there are serious issues with the FBI’s fingerprint background-check system. Fingerprints end up in the database due to arrests, but half the records in the FBI database do not indicate whether a given arrest ultimately resulted in a sustained conviction. That means the FBI database is effectively an arrest database. Given that about a third of all arrests do not result in conviction for a crime, use of the database as a proxy for an individual’s criminal background is highly dubious.

As of yet, there is no evidence that fingerprint background checks are more effective at protecting public safety than name-based checks. Given the news out of Nevada, it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon.

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