Trey Couvillion , LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Popular ridesharing apps Uber and Lyft might soon pick up passengers in all corners of the state, as legislators advanced a bill Tuesday that would expand the services statewide.
The proposed legislation, authored by Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, would expand services of Uber, the industry’s leader, and Lyft, the second-largest rideshare app beyond some of the state’s biggest cities.
The Department of Transportation and Development would have authority to regulate the industry on a statewide level while not disturbing the rules set by some cities.
The House Transportation Committee debated the bill for more than an hour, with lawmakers stressing the importance of consistent vetting processes and arguing about whether DOTD reviews of drivers’ records should make them public.
A similar bill, proposed by House Speaker Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, was struck down in the Senate last year. The current bill requires DOTD to review, but not obtain, a sample of records provided by the ride-hailing companies.
In February, a woman was reportedly sexually assaulted in Baton Rouge when she got into the vehicle of someone who was impersonating a rideshare service. In 2018, a fake rideshare driver demanded money from LSU’s students at knifepoint.
Scott Sternberg, general counsel to the Louisiana Press Association, sparked the debate Tuesday by insisting that all records viewed by DOTD become public.
“The people and the press should be allowed to view those records, and that’s my opposition to this small part of the bill,” Scott Sternberg said.
Rep. Magee countered that all criminal records from Uber and Lyft drivers are already public records and that language in the bill suggests that DOTD could request documents from the companies, which would in turn make them public records.
“We’re setting the floor with this bill, not the ceiling,” Magee said, as questions from Sternberg and legislators poured in on the language of the bill regarding access to background checks and driving records.
“I think we’re getting lost in some of the weeds and some of the details,” Magee said. “DOTD needs to make these rules because they’re the regulator.”
Sternberg argued that the bill in its current state allows too much discretion on the part of Uber and Lyft to provide records on drivers.
Magee maintained that Uber uses a thorough background check system to verify drivers’ histories before they get behind the wheel.
Magee also argued the bill should protect drivers’ personal information. “If they have their whole lives being stored at DOTD, it’s going to disincentivize them to participate,” Magee said.
Uber and Lyft passengers already have access to their driver’s name and picture, along with the license plate number and vehicle model.
Compared to traditional taxis, Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, said these companies improve rider safety by providing this added information. “I’ve seen the transition in this industry to where we’re looking for those conveniences,” White said.
Echoing Sternberg’s concerns, Rep. Jerry Gisclair, D-Larose, filed an amendment to get rid of a confidentiality clause and let the records inspected by DOTD become public.
Nick Juliano, the Southeast Public Affairs Manager at Uber, emphasized the need for some confidentiality. He cited incidents in New Orleans where drivers’ records, including their full names and addresses, were made public and drivers later had their tires slashed and received threats.
Juliano said current laws protect this information and that Uber has “guard rails” in place to protect it as well.
Gisclair’s amendment failed in a 10 to 5 vote.
Legislatures have regulated rideshare apps in almost every state, including Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, but not without controversy.
“This is what 44 states have already done,” Magee said. “This is just allowing the rest of us to get in on it.”