Uber, no stranger to controversy over the safety of its service, is coming under renewed scrutiny in the light of the deadly shootings in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Jason Brian Dalton, an Uber driver, allegedly shot eight people on Saturday night, leading to the deaths of six of the victims. While the motive for the shootings isn't yet known, Dalton's actions behind the wheel, and the company's screening process for its drivers, are coming into question in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Uber, a private Internet ride-hailing service has raised more than $10 billion in venture capital and is widely viewed as the world's most valuable startup. Its handling of the crisis and ability to make passengers feel safe could have a greater impact on the company's future than its many battles with government regulators.
Uber said that Dalton, 45, passed a background check, while the Kalamazoo County prosecutor said he had no prior criminal record. Although investigators might determine that there was no way for Uber to flag Dalton as unfit to drive, the incident has some passengers and critics raising questions about whether the company is doing enough to protect customers. Who's Driving You, a public safety campaign funded by the taxi industry, said that the case highlights the need for change.
Uber Safety Advisory Board member Edward Davis, a former Boston police commissioner, told CBS MoneyWatch that the issue isn't about background checks, given that Dalton reportedly didn't have a criminal background, but about the availability of guns and mental illness.
"He was a family guy, the kind of guy you would want to hire," Davis said. "This is a case where someone has gone rogue completely. It's impossible to predict."
Uber has a "very good system of checks and constant balances," he added, noting that passengers rate drivers, which provides feedback to the company. "You get security before, during and after the ride. You know who your driver is. You get a picture of him. You get the license number. So I think the criticism that's being leveled at Uber is more a function of Uber being a disruptive technology."
But Who's Driving You says that Uber should be doing more. "An HR person from Uber should be meeting with prospective drivers before allowing them to drive. Passengers in for-hire transportation are vulnerable. Drivers, similar to daycare workers, are placed in a position of trust," said Dave Sutton, a spokesman for the group.
Nevertheless, the violence may seem especially galling given that UberX passengers in the U.S. and Canada have paid an extra $1 "safe rides" fee since 2014, which the company said is geared to paying for driver-safety education and background checks.
The company's chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, said in a statement that Uber is "horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo, Michigan" and had reached out to the police to help in the investigation.
The $1 safe rides fee has drawn complaints, and triggered lawsuits, on two grounds. First, most businesses don't charge their customers extra to ensure their safety. Second, Uber is far from short on cash. In December, the company raised $2.1 billion in its latest financing round, giving it a valuation of $62.5 billion. By comparison, Ford Motor Company (F) has a valuation of $48.2 billion, while General Motors (GM) has a market capitalization of $45 billion.
So just how does Uber screen its drivers? The company says it puts would-be drivers through a "pre-screening process" that includes a criminal search at the county, state and federal levels and a review of their motor vehicle records. The process skips fingerprinting, as well as the Department of Justice and FBI database. By comparison, taxi companies check a candidate's fingerprints against an offender database.
Prosecutors in cities such as San Francisco have argued that Uber isn't doing enough to protect passengers, with that city's district attorney telling CBS Los Angeles that his office has uncovered drivers who had been convicted of sex offenses, burglaries and other crimes.
Some criminals might be slipping through Uber's screening process because it only checks for offenses within a certain period. For instance, drivers are disqualified if they've been convicted of DUIs, violent crimes or other offenses within seven years. But the company checks for revoked, suspended or invalid licenses for only the past three years.
Earlier this month, Uber agreed to pay $28.5 million to settle class-action lawsuits that claimed the company misled consumers about its background checks and fees. As part of the settlement, Uber said it would rename the $1 safe ride fee as a "booking fee."
Other Uber drivers have been accused of injuring passengers, including a Chicago passenger who accused a driver of sexually assaulting her and another case involving a kidnapping. Taxi drivers have also been involved in criminal activity against passengers.
"Of course, the background check system that Uber and other TNCs use is not 100 perecent accurate either," according to Uber's website, pointing to issues such as California's limit to a seven-year "lookback" into their employees' backgrounds. "Every system of background checks that is available today has its flaws," Uber added.
Uber will be "looking very closely at what's happening," Davis said. "At this point in time it doesn't appear to be anything we could have done that could have predicted it."