Lyft driver allegedly punches a pedestrian. Here's what local news got wrong in its coverage.

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 15, 2014

From The News Desk

Yesterday, NBC Bay Area reported that a Lyft driver who had parked his car in an illegal area allegedly punched a pedestrian who tried to take a picture of his car. Said pedestrian captured video of the incident, which shows the Lyft driver getting aggressive and taking a swipe, seemingly at the camera the pedestrian was holding. In the background, the tell-tale pink mustache can be seen.

This is the latest event in a string of high profile conflicts facing Transportation Networking Companies (TNCs). On New Year's Eve an Uber driver hit and killed a six-year-old girl in San Francisco, an event that spurred local and national news organizations to start asking questions about TNC's liability in the eyes of the law.

Soon after, I published an investigative report on Uber's background check procedures, breaking the news that a driver alleged to have assaulted a passenger had done prison time for a felony, something that Uber's background check missed.

Now, Lyft is starting to feel some of its own heat. This aggressive encounter between a Lyft driver and passenger marks what seems to be the first alleged Lyft assault case. The pedestrian elected not to press charges, instead taking the story to local news outlets.

At the time of the incident, the Lyft driver was parked outside his father's liquor shop, not taking a passenger. It's not clear whether he was simply between passengers at the time or entirely off duty. It's a blurry line since Lyft drivers start and end their shifts whenever they choose.

Robert Werth, President of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, doesn't see that as an excuse. “This ‘between-fares’ defense ignores the fact that ‘between fares’ is part of the business," Werth says. "Drivers for legitimate taxi companies are held accountable for their actions during their entire shifts.”

The Lyft driver admitted his wrongdoing, sending the following statement to NBC:

My father's corner store was robbed at gunpoint and has been the target of frequent thefts since then, so I stop by regularly to check on my dad and our store on my personal time. Two months ago, when I pulled up to park in front of our store, I was confronted by an individual who was filming me and my car. I was not working for Lyft at the time, and have since learned that this individual was a medallion holder. While this isn't an excuse to get upset and lose my cool, which I wish I hadn't done, I was concerned for my dad and the store and felt threatened by this individual at the time. The video clip now posted online does not show the full interaction, as my father and I walked away and I moved my car and left the scene right after.
The incident is much tamer than the alleged assault cases Uber has faced, which range from drivers reportedly choking passengers to raping them.

That said, it's not a fun moment for Lyft. The company, along with Sidecar, has largely managed to stay out of the limelight of these PR disasters. But as it grows in size, rapidly hiring drivers to keep up with customer demand, it's bound to face more of its own assault and accident situations.

The legality surrounding such moments is foggy. No TNC assault case has gone to trial yet, so there isn't a court precedent. That said, companies could be liable for negligent hiring if they botched their legal duty to vet new drivers.

In California TNCs are required to get "national criminal background checks" of every driver. It's a mandate stemming from the California Public Utilities Commission, which legalized ride sharing in September. This is a fact that NBC and other news outlets trotted out in their coverage of the recent Lyft incident.

It sounds official and legitimate, but that's not entirely the case. Here's what local news got wrong: There is no official standard for what constitutes a "background check."

Tons of companies across the Internet claim to run background checks and the cost ranges from $15 to private investigators billing hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are not all equal. Furthermore, these background check companies have their own databases, which vary depending on what court records they have access to.

In contrast, most cities in California require a particular type of background check for taxi drivers -- a Live Scan. The Live Scan uses fingerprints, not just social security numbers, and indexes official justice department and FBI databases. Furthermore, the scan updates after the fact, so if a driver is arrested for drunk driving or commits another crime after being hired, the taxi company is notified.

TNCs, on the other hand, are not legally required to do Live Scans.

In the course of my Uber investigation, I spoke with legal experts who were shocked to learn that the CPUC had not mandated Live Scans for TNCs. "The live scan is really the only way to tell someone's history," Jordanna Thigpen, a trial lawyer in Los Angeles and the former Executive Director of the San Francisco Taxi Commission, said.

In the case of Uber, we have proof that at least one driver who served prison time for a felony slipped through the background check. Uber uses a company called Hirease for its checks and would not would not confirm or deny whether Hirease uses Live Scans for Uber drivers.

Likewise, Lyft relies on a company called Sterling and has not stated whether the background checks are Live Scans. It's unlikely, because that would require sending every potential driver to be fingerprinted at a location, something that slows down the onboarding process when these companies are desperate to get more drivers on the road.

In short, just because TNCs follow legal regulations for background checks does not mean their drivers are properly vetted, at least not to the standards of taxi companies.

Is this Lyft or Uber's fault? Not entirely. After all, these companies are playing by the rules. The buck stops at the CPUC, for legalizing TNCs at a lower regulatory standard than that faced by taxi companies.

That said, although Lyft and Uber are adhering to the letter of the law, perhaps they should consider going above and beyond minimum requirements. At a time when the TNC business model is new and unproven, passengers will be playing close attention to situations like these.

The brands are at risk each and every time a driver has a conflict with a passenger or pedestrian. As these incidents occur, media outlets will be investigating these companies' hiring and operational practices and asking tough questions about safety and regulations. Consumers will lose just a little bit of trust when TNC's answers are less than reassuring.

It couldn't hurt to go that extra -- extremely important -- mile.

[Image via Thinkstock]