Uber accused of ignoring drunk driver complaints in California

The ride-hailing company could be on the hook for a $1.1 million fine.

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In the latest string of bad PR for Uber, the company could be facing down yet another fine from regulators in the state of California, this time for allegedly failing to look into rider complaints of drivers on the service being under the influence. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the state has a zero-tolerance policy for intoxicated drivers on ride-hailing platforms, meaning the company must immediately suspend and investigate a driver if they receive a complaint. But according to a legal filing from the California Public Utilities Commission, the ride-hailing giant failed to take action in at least 149 complaints during the one-year period from August 2014 to 2015, and may have left potentially dangerous drivers on the road.

Under the CPUC's regulations, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft must include an in-app call or reporting feature for rider complaints. As the agency noted in its brief, however, there's no way to flag a complaint as a DUI allegation. "The flaw with that approach," the agency wrote, is that a driver won't be suspended until Uber can review and identify the complaint by hand. In fact, out of 154 complaints that the agency reviewed, it found that Uber failed to promptly suspend drivers in 149 of them. On 64 occasions, drivers even kept picking up riders within an hour after a rider sent in a complaint. Uber allegedly only followed up with an investigation in 21 of the cases the CPUC reviewed and conflicting data also shows that some drivers were able to stay logged on and marked as available for hours after Uber claimed it had suspended their accounts.

In Uber's defense, the company reported that it received a total of 2,047 zero-tolerance complaints during that time period and deactivated a total 574 drivers as a result. However, the CPUC's briefing suggests that Uber's data may not paint a complete picture. When reached for comment, an Uber spokesperson wrote via email, "We have zero tolerance for any impaired driving as outlined in our Community Guidelines. This report relates to complaints in 2014 and 2015 and we've significantly improved our processes since then."

While Uber's Community Guidelines do state that the company may suspend drivers if they receive multiple unconfirmed complaints of drug or alcohol use, the CPUC pointed out that this not only goes against the zero tolerance rule, but that Uber didn't even stick to their own policy. The agency allegedly found 25 cases where Uber failed to suspend or investigate even after three or more complaints.

For each of the 151 violations, the CPUC is recommending a $7,500 fine, for a total of more than $1.1 million. As the LA Times notes, an administrative judge will hear arguments from both sides before either approving or rejecting the fees.