7News Investigates: Drivers, ride-sharing companies fight Mass. background checks

They’ve been banned from driving for Uber or Lyft, and many of the drivers say they understand why the state is banning people with a history of violence or crime behind the wheel.

But missing a car inspection?

7NEWS looked at the new system that’s keeping drivers hoping to earn a living stuck in park.

Holly Montero said she simply needed more time to care for her children.

“That opportunity to drive for these companies really gives me the freedom and flexibility I need,” Montero said.

But her new career with Lyft quickly fell apart.

“All of a sudden, I got a notification through the app saying they deactivated my account,” Montero said.

Sweeping state-run background checks on Lyft and Uber drivers – the first of their kind in the country – found her driver’s license had been suspended two years ago.

The reason? Failure to get her car inspected.

“My assumption was it was suspensions for major issues,” Montero said of the new, stricter background check guidelines. “I didn’t realize it literally was every license suspension – it didn’t matter what it was for.”

“The fact that it’s something so simple that’s stopping me from being able to do it — it’s unfair,” Montero said.

State lawmakers pushed for the background checks after a series of attacks. Police have arrested Uber drivers for sexual assaults in Cambridge, Norwood, and Boston – all in the past few years.

Through the new background checks, the state can now look at a driver’s entire criminal history, as opposed to checks run by private companies, which are only allowed to look seven years into a driver’s past.

Those checks resulted in the state putting 8,200 Uber and Lyft drivers in park last month. Fifty-one of them were sex offenders, and more than 1,500 had been charged with a violent crime.

But many other drivers were banned because of decades-old cases, crimes they were never convicted of, or lower-level traffic issues.

“They’re concerned that they’ve lost their livelihood, and they’re not sure entirely why,” said Tom Maguire, who runs Uber’s New England operations. “We’re concerned because those drivers are not getting their voices heard.”

“We’re calling on Gov. (Charlie) Baker, the Department of Public Utilities (the state agency overseeing the new regulations), and the administration, to listen – to listen to those thousands of drivers that have unjustly been disqualified,” Maguire said.

Gov. Baker said the state background checks have helped Massachusetts set a national standard for driver safety. But now, lawmakers who pushed for the safety checks are split on whether the state has gone too far.

“Let’s turn it around and make it fair for everybody,” Montero said.

When 7NEWS asked Maguire why Uber didn’t know about its drivers who had troubling criminal histories before the state disqualified them, Maguire replied, “Safety has always been, and will continue to be, a number one priority for us at Uber.”

Maguire pointed to the Uber app’s feature that allows friends or family to track a loved one’s ride in real time, as well as Uber’s ongoing effort to make it easier for passengers to wait for their rides inside, to highlight the company’s commitment to safety.

Montero appealed her disqualification, but was denied. DPU says appeals may be denied without a hearing if a driver has any one of 18 disqualifying conditions, including a driver’s license suspension within the past seven years.

Many banned Uber and Lyft drivers are expected at a public hearing on the new state rules, which will be held at the State Transportation Building on Tuesday at 10 a.m.

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