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Dallas and Uber’s Love Affair May Be Over

After an Uber driver was accused of rape, the friendly relationship between Dallas and the transportation company could be getting frosty.

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(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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.

 

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  • 王淑惠

    Fast and Cheap, But Not Safe
    Fast and Safe, But Not Cheap
    Cheap and Safe, But Not Fast
    Uber ON. Drive and ride at your own risk.

    • Joe Viocoe

      Sorry 王淑惠 shill,,…… you aren’t a real person.
      Your account was created as a sock puppet for some taxi company or cab driver’s association in response to Uber taking market share.
      Your account was created for the sole purpose of attacking a single company.
      Your account name is “UberHotNews” proving that your account solely exists to spread hate regarding Uber.
      EVERY comment you have ever made, has been about Uber.
      You are a shill account spamming this forum.

      Flagging your account for deletion.

  • jk

    TM, I’m disappointed. Y’all’s journalism is usually above reproach, but this article contains multiple stinkers:

    “a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman described as ‘corporate civil disobedience'”

    The hyperlink for this text goes to a standard Statesman news item (not an op-ed piece) about Uber, and says nothing about “corporate civil disobedience.”

    “In Dallas, however, it’s been relatively smooth sailing . . . Or, at least, it was until last weekend”

    They’ve already kissed and made up, but I don’t see any sort of follow-up here.

    “This is hardly the first time an Uber driver has been accused of rape.”

    Nor will it be the last. Newsflash: companies screw up, and bad guys know multiple nefarious means of slipping through various legal cracks. The part that *does* bear more mention than you gave it, however, is that Uber drivers are typically caught almost immediately after committing some sort of infraction — which definitely is *not* the case for taxi crimes. The difference between the two? It’s impossible to use Uber without it having a complete record of your name, credit card info, home address and cell phone number. (Yes, it’s possible to get past these controls if you’ve stolen someone’s identity, but to my knowledge no identity thieves have used Uber in this fashion.)

    Many, if not most, rape victims are women in need of a ride home late at night, and quite a few of them need this ride because they’re too intoxicated to drive. If they’re attacked by a taxi driver, the odds of them remembering any specific details about the attacker or the taxi vehicle — the driver’s ID number, the vehicle license plate, etc. — are slim, given that they’re most likely in a state of shock after the crime takes place. Uber, on the other hand, can find out in a matter of seconds which driver picked up a person he intended to victimize.

    “The list of accusations is long.”

    Uber provides in excess of a million rides PER DAY. On a per-capita basis, the list of accusations is actually extremely *short*.

    “Still, Uber’s ‘anybody can become a driver’ model is a big part of what makes it a viable company.”

    This is a rather significant mischaracterization of the truth. At NO point has Uber knowingly allowed ex-cons to work as drivers; they’ve been performing background checks on prospective drivers since day one. It’s almost as if you’re trying to take Uber’s assertion literally, which is just plain silly.

    “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.”

    Um, no. While this is certainly what they spin to you media folks, the reality is that it’s far *easier* to get a job driving a taxi than it is driving for Uber. Moreover, the only way their business model is “profitable for drivers” is if they work 70- to 80-hour weeks, which is the only way they can cover the expense of sublease vehicles by the day or week *and* make just enough to take home. (Nonetheless, few American taxi drivers net more than $25K a year, and I don’t know that I’d classify a barely-above-poverty-level income as “profitable.”)

    Cab companies — at least in Texas — are successful, or at least they were before Uber & Lyft entered the picture, because they a) ruthlessly exploit their drivers, providing them with jack-sh*t in the way of benefits and charging permit-sublease rates that border on usurious; b) are allowed to “self-insure” their cars, a euphemism for having no outside insurance, in each of the state’s four largest markets (all those municipal campaign donations over the past few decades worked!); and c) check only the federal fingerprint registry as a means of “background checks.” If you think about it a minutes you’ll figure out which large group of folks in need of work doesn’t have fingerprints on file with the federal government, seeing as they just entered the country within the past few years…

    “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.”

    See above. And one last thing:

    “If San Antonio looks like a worst-case scenario for companies like Uber as they attempt to operate legally”

    San Antonio and Lyft, Uber’s rival, just reached a new agreement that could take effect as early as Monday. Uber hasn’t yet signed on, but it’s expected to soon.

    P.S. Ping me the next time you’re about to post an Uber or Lyft article; I have a hunch it’ll need some copyediting.

    • billsteigerwald

      Beautiful/thorough critique of a piece of sloppy/clueless/tilted journalism, says this ex-journalist and current Uber driver in Pittsburgh.

      Flag me for piling on:

      “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.”

      Cab companies are “successful” (i.e., they’ve made huge profits for their rich owners) in cities like Pittsburgh, New York and Dallas because they have been granted special monopoly privileges by state and local governments and the politicians that run them. Cab companies have been allowed by local governments, for 75 years or so, to rob the public with high fares and provide poor or nonexistent service to everyone but airport-bound bizmen. The local and national media — except maybe Forbes mag and Reason mag — have never noticed or understood or cared about this politically created and protected highway robbery of the poor and carless. Now Uber is disrupting/destroying this old, often racist model. It’s creating a better, freer society and micro-transit mobility. Drunks are being taken off the road. Young women are moving around cities safely and reliably — every Saturday night. By the hundreds of thousands. Good part-time or full-time jobs are being created for old farts like me. Yes. A creep or three will rape or assault a drunk women. But it’s as rare as a plane crash and the creep will almost certainly be caught — and will be highly publicized by a news media that doesn’t understand or like Uber or how it is using innovation, capital and a ballsy approach to ignoring or challenging bad laws to upend the horrible system we’ve been stuck with since the New Deal. Cabbies, by the way, are among the many victims of this doomed taxi racket that has enriched a few cab company owners and the politicians they give money to.