Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council members should have one more conversation about public safety before voting Thursday on the future of rideshare companies here. Facts, not fear, should drive that public forum debate.

Let’s hear elected officials talk more about the city’s appalling record of people killed and seriously injured by drunk drivers versus manufactured fears of rideshare drivers who have not killed or maimed anyone here.

Drunk driving fatalities in Bexar County in 2015: 71. Rideshare fatalities: 0.

Mayor Taylor needs at least half of the 10 City Council members to join her in extending the pilot program that has kept rideshare operating in San Antonio this past year, a time when the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has reported a decline of more than 1,000 arrests on charges of driving while intoxicated, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Tech Bloc Rally for Rideshare from Dave Sims – Astrobleme Films on Vimeo.

Here is where the vote count likely stands today: Mayor Taylor and Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Alan Warrick (D2), Rey Saldaña (D4), and Ron Nirenberg (D8) are in favor of extending the rideshare program. They also would work in year two of the pilot program to get more Uber and Lyft drivers to submit to fingerprinting as part of their background checks. There is momentum building for a robust public information campaign to get people to use rideshare instead of driving after drinking.

Uber and Lyft could help their cause by offering to underwrite that campaign. Both companies have deep pockets and stand to profit from the growth of rideshare here. Educating the alcohol-consuming public on the benefits of hailing rideshare after an evening of drinking will save lives and protect innocent families from terrible tragedies.

Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Ray Lopez (D6), Cris Medina (D7), Mike Gallagher (D10) have expressed opposition to the pilot program extension unless there are mandatory fingerprint checks of all drivers. They have cited public safety concerns and say the background checks performed by the rideshare companies are inadequate and fail to protect vulnerable passengers.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told Council members on Wednesday that the rideshare companies’ third-party background checks are adequate. The services are safe for users, he said, and are reducing the incidents of drunk driving.

Those assurances and the clear reduction in drunk driving arrests appear to be convincing Gonzales, a cyclist and mother with small children, to vote with the mayor.

“Safety has always been the number one priority … that’s why I think fingerprints are so important,” Gonzales said. “But I know that I have talked to many people (that have used rideshare during) this pilot period. I know my mother used it the other day and (that) really surprised me.”

Councilman Joe Krier (D9) has been seen as they key swing vote. The longtime civic leader announced Thursday that he will not seek re-election when his current term expires next year. Krier, one of the mayor’s strongest supporters on Council, seemed like a potential no vote on the rideshare issue as recently as one week ago, but a renewed push by City staff to incentivize drivers to submit to fingerprinting seemed to win over Krier.

“I think these guys (City staff) have come forward with a credible proposal,” Krier said.

It should be easy for public safety advocates to vote for extension of the rideshare pilot program. Let’s look at the numbers:

Drunk driving fatalities in San Antonio in 2015: 56. Rideshare fatalities: 0.

There were 10,265 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in the U.S. in 2015, and 1,323 of them were in Texas, which leads the nation – a sorry distinction. Drunk drivers account for 38% of all traffic fatalities in the state. These statistics come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Here are other numbers from the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT):

There were 2,028 alcohol-impaired crashes (5.5 a day) in San Antonio in 2015, accounting for 56 deaths and 529 injuries. In Bexar County, there were 2,251 alcohol impaired crashes (6.1 a day), resulting in 71 deaths and 581 injuries over the same period.

When broken down on a per capita basis, Bexar County leads the state in drunk driving fatalities with one death for every 26,728 people. The rate in Dallas County is one death per 30,763 people, and in Harris County it’s one death per 40,518 people.

No one is saying rideshare drivers should not undergo extensive background checks. They should, but the best background checks in the world won’t prevent a rogue taxi driver, a rogue rideshare driver, a rogue cop, or a rogue active duty military officer from committing an assault or murder. It happens. Rarely, but it happens.

Council members who cite public safety as the reason for their no votes are ignoring the enormity of the drunk driving problem in San Antonio. It isn’t just drunk drivers who are dying. Often times they walk away from the scene of a crash, leaving behind innocent victims in other vehicles, on foot, or on bicycles.

And let’s stop calling them accidents. Drunk driving crashes and fatalities stem from purposeful, antisocial behavior. There is nothing accidental about them.

San Antonio has more to lose than the lives of dozens of its own citizens each year.  The image that this city is friendly and open to innovation is a distinct advantage for San Antonio. Texas cities divided over rideshare have forfeited this opportunity.

“What is different about San Antonio is that we have all come together and forged agreement and figured out how to get this done,” Tech Bloc CEO David Heard said this week. The tech-driven organization held a pro-rideshare rally on Tuesday at Burleson Yard on the city’s Eastside that drew more than 500 people, according to organizers, who said they collected nearly 400 letters of support that evening.

City Council listens to proposed rule changes for rideshare and traditional vehicle for hire companies on Nov. 30, 2016. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
City Council listens to proposed rule changes for rideshare and traditional vehicle for hire companies. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

A vote against rideshare would seriously damage the city’s reputation as a destination city for talented and educated workers. Perhaps cities like Austin and Houston can weather the loss of rideshare, given their abundant attractions and smart job economies. San Antonio needs every competitive advantage it can obtain.

“In every globally competitive city, you expect to have rideshare, right?” Mayor Taylor asked at the Tech Bloc rally, wearing one of the organization’s trademark “Keep Rideshare SA” T-shirts.

No one has come farther on the issue over the past few years than Mayor Taylor. A more unified Council vote would allow her and the City to make a more emphatic statement to the state and nation.

All of this may be rendered moot, Rivard Report Managing Editor Iris Dimmick wrote earlier this week, if the Texas Legislature passes a bill regulating rideshare and other public transportation services. Senate Bill 113, filed by State Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) would prohibit cities from regulating any vehicle-for-hire business, and replace city ordinances with a state law that prohibits sex offenders from becoming drivers.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) filed Senate Bill 176, which would prohibit cities from regulating rideshare/TNCs and instead implement state laws featuring “a series of requirements which does not include the 10-print,” Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of government and public affairs, told the Council during a Wednesday briefing.

“Where they go and how those bills end up looking by the end of the process is hard to predict,” Coyle added.

Even if Texas lawmakers ultimately make rideshare regulation a State issue, San Antonio’s elected officials have the opportunity on Thursday to make a statement about the city that will be heard nationwide: A vote for rideshare is a vote for innovation, for reduced drunk driving, and for greater public safety.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.