Tampa taxi driver gives his take on background checks

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Last week in Washington D.C., a New York City-based CEO had a harrowing experience riding UberBlack, where he claimed he was held against his will in a high-speed chase story that made national news after it was featured in the Washington Post. Although Uber supporters have scoffed at the incident as a bizarre one-off, for others, it's an example of why they say Uber's background check policy is suspect.

Back in January, the website Pando Daily reported that an Uber driver from San Francisco accused of assault had already done prison time for a felony, even though he passed the ride-sharing company's background check.

"Every driver must undergo a three-step background check process before accessing the Uber platform including, county, multi-state and federal checks going back 7 years," Uber spokesperson Natalia Montalvo wrote in an email to CL last month. 

The nature of how thoroughly drivers are screened was part of a conversation I had with a Tampa-based cab driver who only wished to give me his first name of William last week, a day before the incident in Washington D.C. took place. William has been driving a cab in Hillsborough County for the past six months. Preceding that, he drove a cab for two-and-a-half years in Pinellas County.

"St. Pete just has cops," he said in reference to who scrutinizes cabbies in Pinellas. "St. Pete's a bigger nut to track. They have cops do it because there's no one else to [inspect]," he says in comparison to the HIllsborough County Public Transportation agency, which has its own officers to inspect both limousine and taxicab rides. "And they don't really care as long as nobody gets hurt," he says about the inspection process in Pinellas, adding that "they've got so much with crime and other things that somebody giving them a ride isn't on the top of their list."

As CL reported in last week's issue, St. Pete officials in the business tax division that regulate cabs are behaving as if Uber and its ride sharing competitor Lyft aren't operating in the city when in fact they clearly are. That's one reason you haven't been hearing the complaints about them illicitly entering the marketplace there. 

William says things are much more lax for taxi cab drivers in Pinellas, who aren't regulated as thoroughly as they are in Hillsborough County under the Public Transportation Commission. 

"Spend some time in Clearwater," he says. "There's no uniformity in Clearwater. Clearwater says have insurance. When you register [a cab] it has to be in decent condition. [And] they don't have anything in Gulfport to regulate."

CL spoke on Tuesday with Jan McMahan in that city's planning and development division. She says that her office issues business tax receipts to the cab companies that operate in Clearwater. If a passenger has a complaint with their driver for whatever reason "we really don't get into that," saying that the complaint should go to the company, and if there is inappropriate behavior the police would be involved.

In Gulfport we left a message with a staffer in their community development office who said an official would return our call, but hadn't yet as we post this story.

William says he knows some cab drivers who simply "just don't get it with customer service" but says in Hillsborough it's theoretically easier to complain with the PTC in existence. "If you've been treated unfairly, at least you've got someplace to go," he says. In Clearwater he says the only recourse is to go through small claims court, but "who's got time for that?"

William says his attitude about the PTC has changed now that he's actually driving in Hillsborough County. "When I was over there [in Pinellas] it was like, 'ah, screw them, screw them.' But now that I'm over here I see what they do. In extreme cases when somebody comes up missing because they got into a cab, it's Fred in his Hyundai, you know what I mean? How's that person going to be found?" he asks if an Uber or Lyft driver goes rogue with a fare. 

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