Galveston council members should follow City Manager Brian Maxwell’s recommendation and loosen the regulations for taxi drivers to match the rules mandated by the state of Texas for ride-hailing services, which are taxi companies by another name.
Such a change became an issue Wednesday when the Texas Senate approved a bill creating statewide rules for ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, and banning locally created rules such as the city had enacted last year.
The bill already had passed the House and Gov. Greg Abbott almost certainly will sign it into law. The passage of House Bill 100 was a victory for corporate influence over local self-determination, of political hypocrisy over principal and perhaps of money over public safety. Be that as it may, the bad bill will become a bad law as soon as Abbott affixes his name to it.
The bill requires ride-hailing companies to have permits through the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and pay an annual fee to the state. That fee, along, no doubt, with some lobby money, was among the things lawmakers were willing to accept in trade for good public policy.
Companies are required to perform background checks, but are not required to fingerprint their drivers. The fingerprinting requirement was the main sticking point between Uber and the city of Galveston as the latter was drafting rules to regulate the company’s operations on the island. It has been the main sticking point between Uber and all the cities, including Austin and Houston, that have found conflict in attempting to regulate the major ride-hailing companies.
The fingerprinting requirement came about because there was a compelling public interest, at least among people concerned about public safety, in closely vetting people who drive around picking up strangers. The requirement had long been in effect for taxi companies and nobody pitched a fit about it.
Not until Uber came along anyway. Uber claims the background checks it conducts, which consist of checking a name and maybe some other information against computer databases, are sufficient and fingerprinting is overly burdensome.
Of course, at a time when criminals can assume and discard identities like the rest of us change socks, without fingerprints the companies have no idea whether the names and numbers they submit to background checks are in any way actually connected to the people behind the wheel of the vehicles they dispatch.
That’s the way the ride-hailing companies want it. They want to maintain as much distance between themselves and the drivers as possible so as to argue, in a very concrete and legally relevant way, that they are mere brokers in the transaction, in no way liable for any murder or mayhem that might accompany it.
And there’s also the cost — $20 for a cursory background check, about $90 for a fingerprint based check.
What the legislature has done, in effect, is perform a background check on ride-hailing companies and decided on the behalf of all Texans that they can be taken at their word and that their cursory vetting is good enough to promote public safety.
We think that’s a weak standard, but it’s the law of the land and it should be applied uniformly to every company that wants to haul people around for money.
• Michael A. Smith