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Taxi industry wants background checks for ride-sharing drivers

ALBANY – Looking to block efforts to legalize upstate ride-sharing services this month, a group of taxi companies is stepping up its campaign to require fingerprint background checks of drivers with Uber, Lyft and other web-based transportation companies before those companies can pick up passengers.

In a 30-second digital ad campaign entitled “Mugshots’’ released Tuesday night, the Upstate Transportation Association suggested that consumers could be put at danger if lawmakers pass a measure that does not include the fingerprint mandate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Senate is backing an effort to get the Assembly to go along with a ride-sharing measure if the Legislature returns for a special session before Dec. 31. Under one scenario, depending if final disagreements can be resolved, lawmakers could return to Albany later this week to take up a legislative pay raise bill, a few ethics law-related changes and other matters. The ride-sharing bill was raised by Cuomo last week as a possible special session issue.

The ad by the Upstate Transportation Association, a small, 30-member group of taxi and others companies in the livery business across upstate, pales in comparison to the $1 million ad campaign that Uber announced this week. The taxi group won’t reveal what it’s spending on what appears to be a low-cost digital ad. While Uber’s ads are airing across upstate television markets, the taxi group’s ad is limited to the internet, where it will be run on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

The sides take very different media approaches. Uber’s ad is holiday-themed and talks of the “convenience and safety” of Uber that most New Yorkers want brought to upstate. Buffalo is the nation’s largest city without ride-sharing, which has been legalized in New York City, where the services are more heavily regulated than what is being proposed for upstate.

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In contrast, the taxi group’s ad is ominous. It begins with an image of Jason Dalton, the man driving for Uber at the time he went on a shooting rampage last February in Kalamazoo and killed six people. The ad then rolls through several other images of ride-sharing drivers accused of crimes while on the job.

“Uber doesn’t want its drivers to be subject to the fingerprint checks that apply to taxi drivers. State lawmakers shouldn’t give Uber the green light to expand without putting basic passenger protections in place. Calling an Uber shouldn’t be the same as calling a criminal,’’ the ad’s narrator says.

John Tomassi, president of the taxi group, acknowledged the ad is anything but subtle, but insisted the group needed to make its point about passenger safety if lawmakers are considering rushing an Uber-related bill into law this month.

Tomassi said his group only wants ride-sharing companies upstate to do what is required of upstate taxi drivers and New York City taxi and ride-sharing drivers: fingerprint background checks run by police. “We’re saying if you think it’s important for taxi and school bus drivers and public transportation drivers, how are these drivers any different from the standpoint of passenger safety?’’ Tomassi said of current state requirements for other driver-related jobs.

Tomassi said minor criminal violations committed when a driver was younger, for instance, will not disqualify potential Uber drivers, just as they do not now automatically block someone from becoming a taxi driver.

[Related: County joins push to bring ride-sharing services to Buffalo]

Ride-sharing officials noted, however, that many municipalities, including Buffalo, do not require fingerprinting for taxi drivers. They also say fingerprint checks can end up preventing taxi jobs going to people who may show up in a fingerprint database for an arrest but were never convicted. They say passengers are also safer with ride-hailing services because they can use their smartphones to arrange for rides while in their home or other places and not have to hail a cab on the street and the systems do not consider a person’s skin color or destination in deciding whether to pick up a passenger, as some taxi cab drivers have been accused over the decades.

"It is a new low for the taxi industry to shamelessly mislead New Yorkers as their voices demanding better transportation options in their communities continue to get louder and louder,’’ said Alix Anfang, an Uber spokeswoman.

Tomassi said his group is not pushing to relax the fingerprinting requirements for taxi applicants as a way to even the playing field with ride-sharing companies. “It’s a valid requirement … Nobody has a problem with it,’’ he said of checks now done by local police agencies of taxi driver applicants. He says his group does not oppose Uber coming upstate, but as long as it operates with the same rules as taxi companies.

 

Whether a ride-sharing deal comes together if there is a special session is still uncertain. Some upstate lawmakers are raising a parity theme in pushing to legalize the ride services. “While New York City residents are able to enjoy ride-sharing services, upstate New Yorkers have been left behind,’’ said Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican who on Tuesday began an online petition campaign to get the ride services legalized upstate.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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