Aldermen crack down on ride-hailing safety

Spurred by recent attacks on intoxicated passengers leaving bars and restaurants, a City Council committee will impose a minimum $10,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail for anyone posing as a driver for Uber, Lyft or Via.

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Uber and Lyft are two ride-hailing companies that operate in Chicago.

Both Uber and Lyft support a City Council proposal imposing stiff penalties on anyone impersonating a ride-hailing driver.

AP file

Impersonating a ride-hailing driver in Chicago will soon be costly — both in time and in money.

Spurred by a “rash” of recent attacks on intoxicated passengers stumbling out of downtown bars, the City Council’s Public Safety Committee agreed Thursday to impose a minimum, $10,000 fine and up to 180 days in jail against anyone posing as a driver for Uber, Lyft or Via. The maximum fine would be $20,000 for each offense.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said young party goers are “making the very good decision” not to drive downtown for a night of drinking. But too often, they “look at that as a license” to over-indulge.

“When you over-drink and you’re dependent on someone else to get you home, that poses a tremendous risk to your personal safety,” said Reilly, who introduced the ordinance.

“In the last two years, four women have been raped by fake ride share drivers. We’ve had a number of incidents of people being robbed at gunpoint in alleys just feet from where they’re picked up. The one common thread here is that, typically, these folks have consumed a substantial amount of alcohol.”

Chicago Police Lt. John Cannon knows that better than anybody. He works the midnight watch in the 18th District.

Cannon said the ordinance will allow police to take a “more pro-active approach” to a growing problem: criminals using the ride-share ruse to commit more serious offenses.

“We charge them as often as we can catch them. ... We have seen kidnapping charges, robbery charges, a lot of theft charges, stealing of credit cards. ... There are currently charges — one notably — of a series of rapes and kidnappings being adjudicated now,” Cannon said.

Reilly’s ordinance would make it illegal for anyone to “impersonate” a ride-hailing driver or “falsely represent themselves” as such — either by making false statements or “falsely displaying” company signage or emblems.

In December 2018, now-indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) joined forces with now-deposed Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) on a similar crackdown that went nowhere.

This time, Reilly has the wind at his back.

Uber and Lyft are all for the idea as both companies struggle to improve passenger safety and regain consumer confidence.

Uber recently launched a “PIN Code Verification Feature” that gives riders the option of receiving a four-digit PIN code to provide to their driver before starting a trip. Lyft also offers “vehicle identification options.”

None of those measures is good enough for Reilly.

“This is yet another charge we can layer on top of the other felonies that typically occur during these incidents. Whether that’s a strong-armed robbery, a rape, sexual assault or kidnapping,” Reilly said.

“We’ve seen a rash of serious incidents. This is an important tool we need to provide our partners in the Police Department to really get this thing under control.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said he drank a little too much on the night the Cubs won the World Series and “got into the wrong Lyft.” Lopez had the good fortune of being with a group of people.

“Having to argue with someone who had driven me five blocks away, pulled over in a neighborhood which was not my own, and trying to argue with an individual to let us out was harrowing enough,” Lopez said.

“To be in situation where you are completely out of control — where you are at the sheer mercy of somebody who, at best, only wants to rob you — is something I’m glad our city and our police are taking seriously.”

Reilly’s ordinance marks the latest chapter in an ongoing debate about ride-hailing safety in Chicago.

Three years ago, an embarrassing security oversight at Lyft prompted City Hall to demand that Lyft replace its background checker, review all 27,000 of its drivers and conduct random audits and share the results with the city after acknowledging that one of its drivers had a federal conviction for aiding terrorism.

In spite of that breach, the City Council subsequently agreed to let Uber, Lyft and Via escape fingerprinting and let the ride-hailing industry off the hook on background checks.

Instead, the city left it up to the companies to check their drivers against global, national and local databases to make sure they don’t have criminal records, recent moving violations or show up on sex offender registries or appear on a list of suspected terrorists.

In August 2018, those rigorous requirements paid dividends.

Uber, Lyft and Via got caught conducting inadequate background checks and agreed to pay a $10.4 million fine that then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the largest ever imposed on the industry for violations of that nature.

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