Kempner: Uber Eats murder in Buckhead? Old trouble in new economy

Who doesn’t like a shortcut? Uber, Airbnb and other cousins of the sharing and gig economy help make our lives easier and, sometimes, more affordable.

But digital technology also has reset our tolerance levels. We now accept realities that would have seemed crazy before. People happily get in the personal cars of strangers late at night. Or pay to sleep in the home of someone they don’t know. Or use an app to have meals handled and delivered by a guy even the restaurant manager doesn’t know.

Which brings us to this: the Uber Eats driver arrested for murder in the Atlanta shooting of one of his customers while dropping off a meal. Robert Bivines, the driver, had been on the job just four days.

(Bivines attorney said his client was acting in self defense because he thought customer Ryan Thornton, who was upset about the delivery time, was reaching for a weapon. According to police, Thornton, who was shot four times, appeared to be unarmed.)

The incident is a crucial reminder: The sharing economy isn’t a shortcut around old-fashioned human shortcomings.

No technology really is. It carries no guarantee of safety. The packaging around the gig world might make us feel more comfortable in connecting directly to individual workers, but it is not an impermeable barrier.

Not enough consumers appreciate that technology doesn’t replace common sense.

No signs of wariness

A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that among consumers who participated in ride hailing in the U.S., 70 percent agreed the services use drivers they feel safe riding with. Just 5 percent disagreed.

I talked to Paul Oyer, a Stanford University economics professor whose research included being an Uber driver. He told me he never saw signs of wariness from his riders, even young women getting in his car at night.

The biggest positive surprise he had as a driver, he told me, was how nice his riders were.

“The sharing economy or gig economy is opening up all sorts of new options,” Oyer told me, including making more use of otherwise “underutilized resources” of personal cars or spare bedrooms.

Still, he said, “in a traditional employment relationship there was always more incentive to do more screening. With gig workers, relationships are short term so it is hard to justify the upfront screening.”

No face-to-face

Instead of being interviewed face-to-face, most who apply to Uber upload their details to be checked.

And Uber often has attempted to wriggle out of cumbersome taxi-era rules for fingerprinting drivers, contending such measures aren’t as effective as its own reviews.

Airbnb – which says trust is at the heart of its relationship with consumers – says all its hosts and guests are checked against registers such as watch lists. U.S. residents, it said, are reviewed and will be blocked if they have various kinds of convictions.

Uber says it reviews applicants’ criminal records and driving history, checks for valid bank accounts and reviews sex offender and terrorist watch lists.

Its drivers – whether they deliver meals or carry passengers — go through the same screening process, according to an Uber spokeswoman.

Drivers who only want to deliver meals are blocked if they have criminal convictions in the last seven years, according to Uber. Some states and local governments require the company and others like Lyft to be more restrictive for drivers who carry passengers.

Limits on Georgia drivers

In Georgia, ride-share, taxi and limousine drivers must either have for-hire license endorsements or have passed a private background check. They aren’t eligible to be certified if they have more than three moving violations or one major traffic violation in the prior three years, a DUI conviction in the past seven years, inclusion on the national sex offender registry or any conviction for fraud, a sexual offense or a crime involving property damage, theft, terror, violence or use of a motor vehicle to commit a felony.

Court and jail records show Bivines, the Uber Eats driver accused of murder, was arrested on an aggravated assault charge about nine years ago and later pleaded guilty to simple battery in the case. Jackie Patterson, Bivines’ attorney in the pending murder case, said his client told him the earlier battery incident stemmed from a fist fight with a cousin.

An Uber spokeswoman told me Bivines would have been blocked from driving passengers, given his background.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Uber’s background checks for delivery people is more vigorous than what some local pizza parlors do with their non-app-enabled drivers. (Though I imagine there is potential benefit in restaurants that actually talk to applicants and seek referrals from people who know them.)

Red flags

But Uber’s backgrounding of ride sharing drivers also has faced some criticism.

Last year, Massachusetts booted more than 8,000 Uber and Lyft drivers who had already been cleared by the companies, according to the Boston Globe. Some were zapped for what was described as minor license-related offenses, but there also were people found to be registered sex offenders or having ties to violent histories or sex-related crimes, according to the newspaper.

The Washington Post reported that Maryland nixed thousands of drivers for failing government requirements, though they passed company background checks. (Many, apparently weren’t because of safety issues, though.) And Colorado hit Uber with a multi-million penalty last year for some drivers having past criminal or driving offenses, the Denver Post reported.

Even if Uber were perfect, which it isn’t, the company warns that no background check is infallible. Human nature doesn’t always conform, even to the most appealing designs of the gig economy.

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