Photo Courtesy of Star Nine Ventures http://bit.ly/1Oj6y2l

Austin City Council upset rideshare companies Friday morning with a 9-2 vote in favor of an ordinance that requires its drivers to pass a mandatory fingerprint background check.

The ordinance defies warnings from market leaders Uber and Lyft, whose representatives in Texas had said they would leave Austin if the measure passed. Both rideshare companies followed through on the same threat they made this March in San Antonio when a similar regulation was passed.

The ordinance mandates that the fingerprint requirements be implemented in three stages: 25% of the company’s driver-miles or driver-hours must be from fingerprinted drivers by May 1,  2016, 50% by Aug. 1, 85% by Dec. 1, and 99% by Feb. 1, 2017.

“We do not operate anywhere that has mandatory fingerprint requirements, ” said Chelsea Wilson, a Lyft spokeswomen. “We are happy to work with City Council and we are really hoping that we can find a way forward that is a compromise that does not include a mandatory fingerprint requirement.”

Uber Austin sent an email to its subscribers Friday asking them to sign a petition and tweet at Austin Mayor Steve Adler using the hashtag #KeepAustinUber to voice their opposition to the ordinance.

“At around 2 a.m. today, the rides you have come to rely upon were put in jeopardy,” the email read. “The Austin City Council passed an ordinance that will make it impossible for Uber to operate in this great city. Our hope is the City Council will realize the devastating impact of these regressive regulations and support modern ridesharing rules like those that have been in place over the past year.”

Officials from both rideshare companies call the new fingerprint regulations burdensome and unnecessaryThey said new drivers who want to work less than 20-hour weeks could be dissuaded from applying if they have to visit an office to receive a fingerprint background check.

Both Uber and Lyft currently conduct name-based criminal background checks before hiring drivers. The background checks ask for the applicant’s full name, date of birth, Social Security number, driver’s license, vehicle registration, auto insurance and proof of a completed state vehicle inspection. Applicants are then searched in national, state and local databases for any criminal and driving violations in the last seven years. Lyft also conducts in-person interviews.

The push for more intensive background checks stem from concerns over the safety of riders, particularly those who are intoxicated. KUT-FM, Austin Public Radio,  reported that the Austin Police Department has received seven reports of sexual assault by Uber and Lyft drivers this year.

Danielle Lopez, a recent graduate from the University of Texas,  is wary of rideshare services and only uses them when accompanied by friends.  She is not an avid user, but said she would miss the convenience the services offers for late-night rides and situations where venue’s have limited parking. 

“I don’t know what we did before we started using Uber and Lyft,” Lopez said. “I would really miss it.”

Many who oppose the ordinance, including several council members and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, are concerned the absence of Uber and Lyft could lead to a rise in drunk drivers. Hamilton wrote earlier this month that Austin saw an increase in DWI arrests between 2011 to 2013, but a 16 percent decrease in 2014, the year Uber and Lyft launched in Austin. Although the causal relationship is not proven, he said rideshare groups are “undoubtedly making our city safer.”

Elizabeth Bennett, a junior at St. Edward’s University in Austin, agrees with the new ordinance. She thinks new rideshare options that will accommodate the city’s new fingerprint regulations will pop up in place of Uber and Lyft.

“I would feel more safe driving with someone who had a full fingerprint background check because of the cases of sexual assault from Uber and Lyft drivers,” Bennett said. “I would rather be with a company that does full background checks, no matter who they are.”

Get Me, a company new to the rideshare game, is prepared to offer just that. The Dallas-based start-up  operates like a traditional rideshare company and personal delivery service. It began offering rides in Austin last Tuesday. A Get Me representative told KXAN-TV that the company will comply with the city council’s fingerprint requirements. Get me plans on launching its service in San Antonio on Jan. 14, placing it in direct competition with Uber and Lyft here.

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Austin, meanwhile, is likely to experience months of divisive debate over the value and importance of rideshare and what constitutes reasonable regulation. Cities that lose rideshare services tend to experience a backlash from consumers, especially younger professionals who use the service regularly to avoid driving under the influence, and negative media attention outside their cities.

*Featured Image: Austin City Skyline. Photo Courtesy of Star Nine Ventures

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Katie Walsh

Katie Walsh studies journalism and English at the University of Texas at Austin and will graduate in May 2017.