For the most part, Texas’s largest cities have a somewhat contentious relationship with Uber. The transportation networking company left San Antonio completely after the city passed new regulations on their business model in April. That same month, Houston Mayor Annise Parker nearly revoked the company’s permit to operate in the city over driver compliance issues. And just a month earlier, in Austin, the company was barred from offering service to and from the city’s airport until its commitment to what a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman described as “corporate civil disobedience” brought all parties back to the table.
In Dallas, however, it’s been relatively smooth sailing. Although initial questions about permitting and legality were contentious, as with everywhere Uber has attempted to operate, they resolved smoothly last year and approached their relationship like a true partnership. City manager A.C. Gonzalez apologized for a potential law that would have made it harder for the company to operate in Dallas, and the tech world went gaga in April when the city announced that it would be integrating Uber into its public transportation app. If San Antonio looks like a worst-case scenario for companies like Uber as they attempt to operate legally, Dallas is the dream by comparison.
Or, at least, it was until last weekend, when the city and the company both attempted to deflect blame when a driver was arrested for raping a passenger in her home. As WFAA reported:
An Uber driver has been arrested for sexually assaulting one of his passengers in her home.
Police said Talal Ali Chammout, 56, picked up the victim in the McKinney Avenue/Cedar Springs Road area on Saturday, July 25. The suspect then drove her to the drop off location — her residence in the 200 block of W. Colorado Blvd. — and let her out of the vehicle.
The victim told police Chammout followed her inside her residence against her wishes and sexually assaulted her.
Chammout was arrested and charged with sexual assault Wednesday.
In the wake of Chammout’s arrest, both Dallas and Uber are clearly aware that some part of the process was screwed up. That became even more apparent when it was revealed that Chammout had previously served time in a federal prison — something that would have kept him from passing the background checks required to become an Uber driver.
Both Uber and the city of Dallas require drivers to pass separate background checks. And following Chammout’s arrest, Uber went out ahead of the city to declare that, according to their system, Chammout had been licensed to serve as a livery driver by the city with a limousine permit. According to the Dallas Morning News, though, Dallas spokeswoman Sana Syed says that Chammout is listed as a contact for a woman with the same last name who owns a limo company, but he’s not in the city’s system himself.
“He didn’t go through our system to get vetted,” Syed said. “We have no record of him applying to be a driver. He’s not in our system, period.”
Syed said the city is waiting on Dallas police to finish their investigation of the alleged rape.
“If we have a driver who is somehow able to get behind the wheel and pose as an Uber driver, then Uber has to explain why he was able to pick someone up and execute a sale,” Syed said.
It turns out that Chammout apparently did have a City of Dallas permit on file with Uber, but the number on it belonged to a different driver and it expired in 2010. No one seems to know how he got that permit, or how Uber’s background checks failed to pick up that A) Chammout had been released from jail on felony charges with the five-year period that would have kept him from being approved, and B) that his permit was phony.
For its part, the city of Dallas is hitting Uber fairly hard on this. Syed told the Dallas Morning News on Monday that the city couldn’t figure out how Chammout “slipped through the cracks at Uber,” and declared that the city “can say with 100 percent certainty that Chammout was not permitted to be a driver in the city of Dallas.” It also wondered whether there were “other drivers who may not have been permitted or who may have fake permits.”
Uber, meanwhile, is staying quiet. Company spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said on Tuesday that the company would be performing an “internal review” on its permit review process, which isn’t the sort of forceful language that necessarily makes prospective passengers feel safe.
This is hardly the first time an Uber driver has been accused of rape. In Houston, an Uber driver using the app without a permit on file with the city was arrested on similar charges in April, and after the story in Dallas broke last week, another Uber driver was charged with sexual battery in Virginia. The list of accusations is long. It’s a complicated issue, in some ways — it’s hard not to argue that Uber drivers who find ways to avoid background checks and safety protocols are the company’s responsibility, but rape charges for drivers are leveled against permitted, background-checked taxi drivers, as well.
Still, Uber’s “anybody can become a driver” model is a big part of what makes it a viable company. Uber’s success is directly tied to having a huge number of drivers on the road, ensuring that there is an endless well of transactions for them to take a slice of. (Cab companies, by contrast, are successful in part because of the way they restrict access to permits, keeping their model profitable for drivers by limiting competition for drivers, who pay the cab company to lease the vehicle.)
In other words, being too cautious about who they let drive works against Uber’s interests. And given that the company’s approach to criticism is, shall we say, less than contrite, it’ll take some time to see how Uber handles the potential fallout for letting a driver like Chammout offer rides. At the moment, though, they seem to be silent on the subject, which appears to expose potential cracks in the company’s friendly relationship with Dallas.