- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Uber said Monday it provided more than 5,000 weekend rides after rolling out its ride-hailing service in the St. Louis area, defying local taxicab regulators against whom the company has filed a federal antitrust lawsuit.

San Francisco-based Uber launched its service in St. Louis city and St. Louis County on Friday, the same day the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission voted 7-1 to allow it to operate in the region with the caveat that would-be drivers agree to be fingerprinted as part of a criminal background check taxi drivers already must undergo.

Uber has balked at such calls, calling its vetting “comprehensive” and sufficient.

How Uber’s drivers are vetted has drawn legal fights elsewhere. San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascon, is pressing a consumer-protection lawsuit with his Los Angeles counterpart, objecting to Uber’s claim that it uses an industry-leading process to vet its drivers. Anything short of fingerprinting can’t make that claim, Gascon said.

Uber has said no background check system is flawless, and that its checks are just as detailed as with taxi drivers.

Government entities around the globe are grappling with how to regulate and monitor ride-hailing companies, also known as transportation network companies. More than 20 states have imposed rules on those services.

In Missouri, a federal judge on Friday rejected Uber’s bid for a temporary order that would have blocked the commission from any action meant to immediately stifle Uber’s foray into the St. Louis market. U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey did not decide the merits of Uber’s ongoing lawsuit.

Autrey, in his five-page ruling, wrote that the public interest favors the regulators, concluding that “the fingerprinting and licensing requirements are crafted to maintain the caliber and reliability of the drivers.”

Uber had said that until Friday, St. Louis was the nation’s biggest metropolitan area without the ride-hailing service. The 5-year-old company says the Missouri lawsuit marks its first against a regulator or any entity for alleged anti-competitive behavior.

An attorney for the commission, Neil Bruntrager, has countered that “we have done everything we can do to open the door to these guys within the limits of the law, and I don’t think they were ever bargaining in good faith.” The commission had not filed in court a formal response to the antitrust lawsuit as of Monday morning.

Ride-hailing services use smartphone apps such as Uber’s “uberX” for riders to book and pay for a private shuttling by drivers who use their own vehicles. Traditional cab drivers have complained such services siphon off passengers and profits, dramatically cutting their ability to earn a living.

Enforcement of any vehicle-for-hire violations will fall to St. Louis city and county police.

A St. Louis police spokeswoman says that department’s officers have no immediate plans to arrest Uber drivers, citing more-pressing law enforcement priorities. St. Louis County police said in a statement that Uber drivers could be cited for unauthorized vehicle-for-hire practices if they are first stopped for a separate infraction.


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