Excerpted by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette By Courtney Linder

Michael Sorg, a part-time ride-hailing driver, recalls both of his background checks with Lyft and Uber just over two years ago. They couldn’t have been more different.

Not far from his home in Beechview, Mr. Sorg, 38, met with a woman representing Lyft at a Dunkin Donuts parking lot in Dormont.

She hopped into Mr. Sorg’s car and asked a few questions as he drove her around. She even took the photo for his driver profile that potential riders would see. All in all, it took him two weeks to get full approval to start driving for Lyft.

With Uber, he signed up and was approved three days later. He said it seemed “scary easy.”

Just as school bus drivers and taxi cab operators must pass a background check before picking up riders in their vehicles, so must drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

Last Thursday, the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission released a full review of Uber’s background check procedures in the state. The commission says it’s the first review of its kind in the country.

The verdict? Uber is exceeding all safety requirements under the law, but there’s still work left to do.

The PUC is not operating in a bubble. Since ride-hailing has become mainstream, safety has been a front-running issue as customers hop into strangers’ vehicles. Over time, companies have added neon lights, pictures of drivers and license plate numbers to help customers find the right car and avoid dangerous encounters.

Pennsylvania law requires ride-hailing companies to adhere to several rules, most requiring certification. That includes obtaining insurance for the appropriate coverage level; maintaining accurate records; implementing driver drug and alcohol policies; driver training programs; complaint resolution procedures; and, of course, driver background checks.

Uber does all of that — but the Pennsylvania PUC sees more room for improvement.

The commission’s review included a study of the driver onboarding process; driver background check practices; complaint handling; contracts and service agreements with Uber’s background check provider; performance metrics and safety statistics; rider and driver in-app safety features; and more.

As of June 2018, there were 39,000 Uber drivers operating in Pennsylvania, according to the PUC report. Those drivers provided over 11.4 million rides during the first three months of last year.

Based on the PUC’s review, it made seven recommendations to Uber, which uses San Francisco-based Checkr Inc. to complete background checks.

It’s all about “ways to reduce the risk to the traveling public,” said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, the commission’s press secretary.

First, Uber should strengthen the background check process and related continuous monitoring features, according to the PUC. That would help ensure that drivers who pass an original background check, but who subsequently commit an act that disqualifies them from driving, will be removed from the platform in a timely manner.

Right now, a driver may remain on the Uber platform anywhere from a month to a year after an incident occurs, according to the report.

Second, Uber should improve the visibility of its safety features on its mobile app.

The PUC’s audit staff downloaded the Uber rider app and found the sign-up process did not sufficiently highlight available safety tools — including an emergency button; information on Uber’s partnerships with law enforcement; and a feature to share a current trip progress with another person who has internet access.

“Research suggests that during emergency situations, individuals may experience impaired cognitive functioning and take ineffective actions,” the report authors noted. “As a result, users may not remember the features or overlook the Safety Toolkit icon in an emergency.”

The PUC suggests Uber should use bright colors, larger sizes or different positioning to call out the safety features.

Other recommendations include:

— Exploring ways to improve the complaint investigation process to eliminate insufficient, invalid or false information;

— Partnering with other transportation companies to develop a database of deactivated drivers;

— Finishing safety initiatives that Uber has outlined but not yet rolled out to all users;

— Establishing goals for performance metrics; and

— Formalizing policies and procedures.

For its part, Uber has already responded to the Pennsylvania commission’s report and has come up with an implementation plan.

“We were glad to partner with the PUC on this report and have already responded to all of their recommendations and assumptions,” said Harry Hartfield, an Uber spokesperson. “We look forward to continuing to work with them to ensure the safety of our riders and drivers.”

So far, Uber has partially accepted five of the PUC recommendations and has fully committed to improving the complaint investigation process and finishing up its own safety-related initiatives.

Despite background checks implemented by the ride-hailing services over the past few years, drivers with questionable criminal histories have slipped through the cracks at times.

One of Uber’s autonomous vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., about a year ago, as the safety driver behind the wheel streamed a singing competition on a smartphone.

That driver, 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez, had attempted to commit armed robbery in the past and had gone to prison — but passed the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company’s background check procedure, according to The Arizona Republic, a newspaper covering the Phoenix area.

And last January, Colorado regulators slapped Lyft with $200,000 in fines for allowing a driver with a criminal record, including robbery and prison escape, to transport riders for over a year.

Now that Lyft is trading on the Nasdaq stock exchange and Uber is expected to go public this year, too, both firms’ operations may be forced to become more transparent than when they were in their disruptive startup phase.

Pennsylvania’s PUC plans to do a similar report for Lyft, according to Mr. Hagen-Frederiksen. He expects that to come out in a year or so.

Mr. Hagen-Frederiksen said the Uber report serves as a template.

“It gives us the first detailed look and serves as a baseline,” he said. “It’s gonna help us when we look at other service providers.”