Frustrated by assaults, Senator sees need to revisit ride-hail law

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BOSTON — Disturbed by recent arrests involving Uber drivers accused of assaulting passengers, Sen. Linda Dorcena-Forry, who backed an unsuccessful effort to fingerprint drivers of app-based ride-hailing services, predicts lawmakers will need to return to the issue next session and did not rule out filing a new bill of her own.

“This is a sad day. It’s frustrating and horrifying that this is happening in our streets,” the Boston Democrat said of the latest alleged assault incident involving a Brockton man who drove for Uber. The alleged incident happened in her Senate district.

According to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, the alleged assault happened in the early morning hours of Aug. 31 while the victim, a woman in her 20s, was being driven to her Boston home by Michael Vedrine. Vedrine, 32, was arraigned and released Friday on his own recognizance, and is expected back in court Oct. 13.

The alleged attack follows three incidents announced by authorities in August. A man in Malden, who later told authorities he that drives for Uber, was charged with assaulting and stealing from a woman. According to the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office, the victim did not use the ride-hailing app to contact the driver and instead contacted him directly. The district attorney’s office also charged an Uber driver with raping a 16-year old girl passenger in Everett. And later that month, Everett police charged another driver with “several sex related offenses and motor vehicle violations,” according to Everett Chief of Police Steven Mazzie.

In an Aug. 29 letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria requested a meeting with him or one of his representatives. “My primary responsibility as mayor of this city is to protect the safety and well-being of my residents,” DeMaria wrote. “It is clear to me that the current driver screening system is simply not working, and recent ride-share legislation passed here in Massachusetts will not be implemented for several months.”

Asked about the most recent incident in Boston, Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said in a statement: “These allegations are disheartening, and we will continue to work closely with the Boston Police Department to assist their investigation. We appreciate and support their efforts in helping keep Boston safe.”

Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law in early August that calls for the creation of a new division in the Department of Public Utilities to regulate services like Uber and Lyft. It establishes a new two-tiered background check system which charges the state and the transportation network companies with reviewing the information of people who apply to be drivers. The new system does not include fingerprinting as part of the background check system.

Uber objected to fingerprinting and threatened to leave the Boston market if it were to be required. Company officials said it would be cumbersome and disproportionately impact minorities seeking jobs.

“I don’t know if it would have prevented it, but it would have deterred it,” Forry told the News Service, when asked whether fingerprinting would have made a difference in the most recent alleged incident.

In a statement, Scott Solombrino, a spokesman for Ride Safe Massachusetts, a group which pushed lawmakers to adopt fingerprinting in the final version of bill, encouraged elected leaders to revisit the law and address lingering safety issues.

“Once again, we find ourselves outraged by Uber’s continued lack of regulation and overall lack of concern for public safety,” he said. “Not a month goes by without another report of a passenger being victimized by their driver. Our state’s boldest leaders – most recently Everett’s [Mayor] Carlo Demaria- are standing up for their community members and saying enough is enough. Massachusetts faces two immediate realities: We cannot wait to implement the 2016 law and further, our law enforcement officials, including Commissioner Evans are on the right side of history. The current background check process is flawed and the solution is fingerprinting.”

In a statement, Uber defended its background check system, while adding that they can only go so far under Massachusetts law.

“Given the legal limitations in place, any company operating in Massachusetts may be unable to access some of the information they need in background screening processes. While no background checks are perfect, we are addressing this and pushing for relevant information to be digitized so all companies can have access to it,” said Whaling in a statement.

Asked if she intended to file legislation next session pertaining to safety components she felt the law didn’t address, Forry said, “It’s something we’re going to have to look at. We’re going to have to look at [transportation network companies]. I’m not sure I’m going to file something, but you know it’s been really disturbing to see the incidents that have been taking place, and so we’ll see.”

— Written by Antonio Caban

Copyright State House News Service