An Uber, Lyft and Sidecar driver in California. Photo by Colin@TheTruthAbout, via Wikimedia Commons.

Only last month, ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft threatened to pull out of Maryland if the state didn’t exempt the companies from having to fingerprint potential drivers during background checks. Today, a state commission gave the companies their wish, but not without creating additional requirements for them to operate here.

After several days of hearing testimony, the Maryland Public Service Commission today unveiled its new set of rules for ride-hailing services – dubbed “Transportation Network Companies” – that will serve as an alternative to the state’s background check requirements for other hired drivers. The commission specified that the new process applies to Uber and Lyft, both of which applied for exemptions from FBI fingerprinting by “arguing that the commercial background checks they use are more comprehensive and accurate.”

In announcing its decision, the commission said, “we find that the alternative background check processes we approve are as comprehensive and accurate as the fingerprint-based background check.”

Under the new rules, Uber and Lyft won’t have to fingerprint their drivers as taxi companies do. However, they will have to meet a list of new requirements, including:

  • Re-running background checks on all drivers on an annual basis (which both companies already do);
  • Using audited and accredited background check providers (Uber does this);
  • Providing written certification that they have verified every applicant’s identity;
  • Notifying the commission 60 days before they plan to change background check providers;
  • Requiring drivers to agree to report arrests or convictions within three business days, and report any resulting firings to the commission;
  • Examining applicants’ whole adult history of convictions in Maryland and, wherever possible, in other jurisdictions;
  • Requiring drivers to return decals and other company gear when they’re terminated;
  • And producing annual reports on operations under the new system about safety-related complaints and changes to their background check processes, as well as numbers of driver deactivations and active drivers, among other requirements.

In a statement, Tom Hayes, Uber’s general manager for the DMV region, thanked the commission. “This decision ensures that tens of thousands of hard-working residents continue to have fair access to flexible work opportunities and the reliable transportation options millions of Marylanders and visitors have come to expect and rely on,” he said.

Lyft said in a statement that the decision “prioritizes public safety while preserving transportation choice for people in Maryland.”

“While we will continue to work with the Commission on certain aspects of the rules, we appreciate their recognition that Lyft’s modern background check process is comprehensive and rigorous,” the statement continued. “People across the state have made ridesharing a part of their daily lives, and we look forward to growing Lyft in Maryland in 2017.”

Both companies check drivers’ criminal histories before hiring them, but forego checking the FBI’s fingerprinting database. According to an AP report, they both hire private firms to check drivers’ names, licenses and Social Security numbers through local court records, national crime databases and a federal sex offender registry.

Uber’s CEO has argued fingerprinting is a discriminatory catch-all for arrests, many of which never lead to convictions or result in dropped charges, because it targets minorities who are more likely to be arrested. There’s also an issue of time: The three-day wait for FBI checks can generate delays for the companies, which have a high rate of turnover as it is.

Per WAMU in D.C., Lyft previously said in a statement that fingerprinting is outdated, while its system is “comprehensive and rigorous, pulling data directly from national and local court databases that are up-to-date, while still encouraging part-time drivers, who make up the vast majority of our Maryland community, to drive with Lyft.”

Of course, there are holes. Reports emerge frequently about drivers who slipped through the companies’ background check systems for various reasons. The taxi industry is closely watching these incidents, with one-industry funded website even recording every reported controversy.

Uber and Lyft both made headlines over this issue before by pulling their services from multiple cities, most notably Austin, Texas. They also left Broward County, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas, but later returned after coming to new terms with lawmakers. The high-profile exception has been New York City, where both companies have agreed to remain while complying with fingerprinting requirements.

This story has been updated with statements from both companies.

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...