15 percent — 30,000 drivers — rejected last year after background screenings

BOSTON — More than 15 percent of potential ride-hail drivers last year — more than 30,000 applicants – were rejected for failing a state criminal screening despite having passed checks by Uber and Lyft, according to state regulators.

The rejected applicants were too young, had criminal backgrounds or had problems with their driving records, according the state Department of Public Utilities.

More than 5,000 applicants were disqualified because of a past violent crime. More than 900 were rejected for sex crimes or because they are registered sex offenders.

Nearly 10,000 didn’t meet age requirements because they were under 21, according to the state, while about 1,500 didn’t have active drivers licenses. About 1,500 had multiple driving offenses on their records.

In the meantime, the state cleared more than 190,000 applications for drivers at ride-hailing networks last year. That was up from nearly 130,000 the previous year, when about 17,000 were rejected, according to the agency.

Massachusetts has some of the toughest requirements for ride-hailing drivers, approved by lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Baker in 2016 with regulations of the industry.

State officials touted the rejections as proof that a screening process, which includes “near-instantaneous” criminal checks, is weeding out bad-apple drivers.

“Rapid notification of this kind substantially improves public safety by allowing the (department) to immediately remove from the road drivers who do not meet the suitability standard,” the agency wrote in a report to lawmakers. “Today any person who arranges a ride … will know that their driver underwent a thorough, two-part background check.”

Under the two-step screening, companies such as Uber and Lyft are first required to perform multi-state criminal and driving background checks, as well as a check of a national sex offender database.

Drivers who pass are referred to the state for checks of criminal histories including crimes such as violent felonies, serious driving offenses or sex abuse convictions.

A driver cannot operate in Massachusetts until they clear the secondary check.

John Boit, executive vice-president of the Maryland-based Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, a national advocacy group, said the large number of rejections raises questions about the effectiveness of ride-hailing companies’ screening processes, and reveals gaps in expectations between the state and transportation networks.

“These companies are putting forward the names of drivers they say they’ve cleared, but 15 percent of them are being found after the fact by the state to be ineligible as drivers,” he said. “It begs the question of whether Uber and Lyft are waiting to get clearance before allowing them to drive for them.”

The taxi and limo industry, which in Massachusetts is regulated at the local level, had pushed the state to require drivers to undergo fingerprint-based screening. But that requirement didn’t make it in the final regulations for ride-hailing services that went into effect in January 2017.

“The goal must be to protect the passengers, which is why in major metropolitan areas taxi drivers have been fingerprinted for decades,” Boit said. “It’s the gold standard.”

Uber did not respond directly to questions about the discrepancy between its checks and the state’s secondary screening but noted the checks are “not done concurrently,” so the state potentially could catch something that occurred after the company’s review.

The state’s Criminal Offender Record Information checks, it said, also “may include information we do not have access to under Massachusetts law.”

Uber pointed out that the state’s screening process requires drivers to have been licensed for a certain period of time, and that drivers can be rejected for having an “insufficient licensing history.” The state lacks a system to clear drivers once they’ve reached a level of driving history considered appropriate, it said.

Uber also touted its own safety measures and improvements to its internal screening that went into effect last year. Those include GPS tracking of rides, 24/7 customer support, a 911 button added to its rail-hailing app, and annual driving and criminal background checks, as well as monitoring for new offenses.

Lyft noted its criminal background checks, conducted by a third party, look back seven years, while state CORI checks look back over a lifetime, suggesting that as a reason that drivers it had cleared were later rejected by the state.

The company said its system ensures drivers aren’t prevented from getting a job for minor offenses that occurred years before. It also touted the reliability of its employment review and safety features, including real-time tracking of rides and 24/7 customer service.

“The safety of the Lyft community is our top priority,” Campbell Matthews, a company spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “Lyft’s background check program complies with Massachusetts law and is just one of the many tools and processes Lyft has built into our platform in the effort to put safety at the center of every ride.”

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering several bills that would tighten — or loosen — the state’s background checks.

One proposal, filed by Rep. Mike Moran, D-Brighton, would require ride-hailing operators to undergo fingerprinting as part of the state’s criminal background checks. Another bill, filed by Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, would drop previous convictions for felony robbery and fraud from the list of disqualifying offenses.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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