Ride-sharing will begin Thursday morning throughout Westchester County after the Board of Legislators and County Executive Rob Astorino reached a compromise with operators Uber and Lyft to launch a voluntary criminal background check for drivers.
The first-of-its-kind program, named Thumbs Up, will allow drivers to be fingerprinted for a $90 fee at the county’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) offices in White Plains. Within 72 hours, the results of the fingerprints will be returned and entered into a database, Astorino said.
A fingerprinted driver whose record turns up clean will be issued a “Thumbs Up” decal that can be displayed in the car window to show passengers that the vehicle operator has passed a criminal background check.
“On a personal level, I would feel more comfortable as a husband that my wife and my daughters, in this day and age, get into a car knowing that driver has been thoroughly vetted through fingerprinting, background checks,” Astorino said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference to announce the program and that ride-sharing would begin in Westchester at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday.
State legislators approved a law in the recently completed session to allow the ride-sharing companies to operate throughout the state outside of New York City; however, the legislation fails to require the criminal background check for drivers. Recently, debate has simmered about the appropriate levels of regulation and whether Westchester should opt out without it.
Astorino said that since New York City requires the check and borders the county, Westchester residents should have the same level of protection as passengers in the five boroughs. Currently, taxis in Westchester are regulated by each municipality, but for-hire car services and other livery operators must have their drivers fingerprinted.
Astorino said he and the Board of Legislators understand the public’s demand for the highly popular ride-sharing services.
He hopes the companies will use the pool of approved applicants to hire drivers.
“Our goal was to find the right balance between safety and convenience,” he said. “Ride-sharing companies provide the public with an important transportation option. But if that convenient ride is not safe, it’s not really an option at all.”
Ride-sharing companies have been opposed to the fingerprinting and background check contending that their own vetting process along with the use of technology delivers at least the same level of protection.
“What’s important for our company is to think about safety holistically,” said Josh Gold, policy director for Uber. “It’s not only about the background screening, it’s about the technology after you get into the ride, before and after you get into the ride.”
Gold said that through the Uber app the customer sees the car make and model, license plate and photo of the driver. The car can also be tracked through GPS so the customer is alerted to head outside only as the driver approaches the address.
Furthermore, the passenger rates the driver and vice versa, and that information is shared within 24 hours, he said.
The process of approving drivers also sets up 21 disqualifiers for ride-sharing companies, Gold added.
“We’re looking forward to providing affordable, reliable transportation options and we feel this is a good compromise that balances the needs of the legislature and the county executive with the requirements of state law,” Gold said of the voluntary fingerprinting.
At least initially, passengers will not have the option of requesting a driver who has passed the background check and has the decal. The companies are also hoping to avoid a cancellation fee if any passenger refuses to get into a car that doesn’t display the sticker, Gold said.
Board of Legislators Chairman Michael Kaplowitz (D-Somers), who attended Astorino’s press conference, said he strongly supported the county executive’s attempts to provide the public with extra protections while allowing ride-sharing to begin.
Despite his support, Kaplowitz bluntly criticized the state law and the ride-sharing companies that have objected to criminal background checks. He said it is “clear that their profit margin is more important to them than being a good corporate citizen.”
“At the end of the day, individuals will be responsible for their own safety and security,” Kaplowitz said. “This program helps but I wish there was more.”
Astorino said contrary to some arguments, any opposition from the county regarding ride-sharing centered only on safety. He said he hoped the voluntary county program would spur discussion in Albany about a need to revise the law.
Starting Wednesday, drivers can be fingerprinted at the county TLC office at 112 E. Post Rd. in White Plains. Within a month the county will announce other locations throughout Westchester. By August, drivers can use Morpho Trust, a state authorized fingerprinting service, to have the check done for $102.