Uber for Teens has reignited an old debate over fingerprinting drivers

Seven years ago, Uber and Lyft blocked an effort to require ride-hailing app drivers to get fingerprinted in California. But by launching Uber for Teens earlier this year, the company inadvertently resurfaced the issue.

Now a broader debate is underway as startups, Uber, and California regulators hash out when a transportation service should be required to fingerprint its drivers.

Uber for Teens launched in February in California, allowing kids aged 13 to 17 to order their own rides under a parent’s account. Public documents show Uber reached out to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) seeking clarity on a 2016 ruling that said any transportation network company whose business involved “primarily transporting minors” would need to enforce strict background checks for drivers, including fingerprinting.

What did “primarily” really mean? Uber wanted to know. Was the Commission planning to update that term anytime soon?

That request prompted a public comments period, which has invited advocacy in favor of fingerprinting from potential competitors like HopSkipDrive, a startup that provides a ride-share service for kids.

The timing has proved serendipitous for HopSkipDrive. The startup’s main business involves helping school districts transport kids, but it also offers a product that allows parents to book rides for their kids in advance, something that could be a direct competitor to Uber for Teens.

By participating in the public comments, HopSkipDrive gets an unexpected opportunity to hold Uber — a behemoth in the ride-hailing industry — to the same standards the startup and taxi companies are held to.

HopSkipDrive has argued that Uber should have to adhere to the requirement spelled out in the 2016 ruling even though it doesn’t “primarily” transport minors. To limit those requirements “suggests that even one child, riding alone, shouldn’t be protected to the highest standards of safety,” Trish Donahue, senior vice president of legal and policy at HopSkipDrive, told TechCrunch.

At the center of the debate is whether Uber should be required to participate in the Department of Justice’s Trustline program. Trustline is a registry maintained by the California Department of Social Services that uses fingerprinting to screen caregivers for criminal arrests and convictions. It also screens applicants against the Child Abuse Central Index, which contains reports of suspected child abuse and neglect.

Uber’s teen service doesn’t make up a significant portion of its business — a spokesperson told TechCrunch teen rides account for under 10% of total rides — but that could change in time. Regardless, Uber believes its own screening system, as well as safety features included in Uber for Teens, such as live trip tracking, is adequate to keep riders of any age safe.

“We proactively engaged the CPUC long before we launched teen accounts in California to ensure parents continue to have this choice when getting their teens where they need to be,” Uber told TechCrunch in an emailed statement. “While the regulatory process will take time, we believe the CPUC will see the value teen accounts bring to busy families and drivers and how safety is embedded into the experience.”

Fingerprinting is a touchy subject for Uber. The ride-hail giant has a history of lobbying to fight initiatives in cities across the country that would mandate fingerprinting for its drivers. Uber has argued that the inconvenience of requiring drivers to get fingerprinted discourages them from signing up to the platform. The company has also said that the FBI’s fingerprint database often contains incomplete or outdated information, and that fingerprint checks disproportionately affect minorities who are more likely to have been arrested, even if not convicted.

Despite the fact that many major cities require fingerprint background checks for taxi drivers, Uber and its counterpart Lyft have largely succeeded in skirting those rules. (Although not in New York City.)

Uber argues that it doesn’t need fingerprinting to ensure adequate background checks. Aside from a motor vehicle report, Uber checks drivers for all criminal convictions, including sexual offenses. The company said in a June filing with the CPUC that it also reruns both of those driver checks annually and “monitors California drivers continuously for disqualifying criminal offenses and driving violations.”

Uber also said the company it uses for background checks, Checkr, searches every state and county where a driver has lived or had any potential interaction with law enforcement.

Background checks aside, Uber says its in-app experience for teens is geared toward safety. Only the most experienced and highly rated drivers are allowed to transport teens, the company says. In addition, live trip tracking is enabled for all teen rides, giving parents real-time updates as well as the driver’s name, vehicle information and requested drop-off location.

Teens getting into an Uber also have to give the driver a unique PIN that their parents set up, and drivers can’t start the trip without it. In addition, if a parent gives microphone permissions, then all audio recording of the ride is mandatory and can’t be turned off.

Uber said it spent more than a year developing teen accounts and consulted with safety experts like Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting children from preventable injuries.

The CPUC told TechCrunch the public comment period for this issue remains open, with replies due July 12. The agency didn’t say when it expects to clarify its ruling.