A bumpy road for ride-shares

It’s been a bad stretch for Uber, the ride-sharing company that would like to convince cities and states across the country that it doesn’t need much regulating.

First came the June arrest of an Uber driver for elbowing and punching a customer during a disagreement over a ride late last year in San Francisco. Subsequent investigation found that the driver, 28-year-old Daveea Whitmire, had previous convictions for felony drug dealing and misdemeanor battery.

Then it got worse: Last week, the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles sent warning letters to Uber and fellow ride-share companies Lyft and Sidecar after a joint investigation revealed several practices that violated state law. Those include “patently untrue” claims the companies made about background checks screening out drivers who have committed driving violations or other crimes.

The allegations cut to one of the biggest worries city and state officials have with ride-sharing companies – that they might put consumers at risk by not thoroughly checking the backgrounds or vehicles of their non-professional drivers.

Such concerns prompted Charlotte officials to consider new rules for ride-shares this year, along with deregulating fares so that taxi companies could better compete with Uber and Lyft. But the Charlotte City Council canceled a meeting on regulations earlier this month, deciding instead to wait for the N.C. General Assembly to take up the matter sometime next year.

Punting the issue to Raleigh was good news for Uber and Lyft, which can continue to operate in Charlotte with far fewer rules than taxi companies. Ride-shares say that’s OK because they’re different, and while that’s true in some respects, they are still for-profit companies that provide vehicles for hire. Without the same costly regulations, ride-shares can charge less than their taxi competition. That’s not fair.

It also may be unsafe. Last week, another San Francisco Uber driver was arrested for hitting a passenger with a hammer, and a Florida Uber driver was arrested for reaching into a woman’s tank top and touching her breast.

Certainly, thorough background checks don’t prevent all bad behavior, but they protect customers by weeding out drivers with a criminal history. In several cities and states, officials and ride-shares have agreed to rules in which regulators can audit or review ride-sharing companies with regards to background checks, vehicles and insurance.

Charlotte shouldn’t wait for the state to decide what, if any, standards it will require for ride-shares. It should instead follow the lead of Detroit, which signed interim agreements with Lyft and Uber that allowed them to operate under certain rules until permanent regulations arrived.

In North Carolina, those regulations might come in part from Raleigh. Lawmakers there – or city officials here – should strike a balance of encouraging entrepreneurship, treating taxi companies fairly, and keeping customers safe. Because as the past month has shown, Uber and their ride-share brethren may be innovative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re well-behaved.