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News 8 Investigates: Who's driving you?

<p>As the number of Uber and Lyft drivers has exploded in Dallas, the city appears to have lost control of the process for regulating them. So who's driving you around?</p>

Brett Shipp

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Published: 2/17/2017 10:27:43 AM
Updated: 10:27 AM CST February 17, 2017

News 8 Investigates

Rideshare businesses, like Uber and Lyft, have mushroomed in popularity around the country. The businesses have become the convenient, cash-free way to get home from night clubs, or for kids coming home from school events.

Their faithful customers see them as the safe “designated driver” to get around, especially for partiers out on the town. And as a cheaper alternative to taxis.

But a News 8 investigation raises questions about rideshare safety and oversight by the city of Dallas.

See part two of our investigation here.

A WFAA review has found the number of permitted transportation-for-hire drivers has mushroomed the past two years, from 1,300 drivers in January 2015, to nearly 26,000 permitted drivers now.

And possibly thousands more drivers lack the proper city permitting – meaning the drivers have not passed criminal background reviews, or their vehicles have not passed inspection, according to city records.

That’s based on citations obtained by WFAA that have been issued since mid-2016 to rideshare drivers. Many of the drivers attempted to pick up passengers at Love Field, and in other high-volume Dallas streets.

According to records obtained by News 8, more than 300 of the transportation-for-hire drivers in Dallas have been convicted of crimes including aggravated assault, robbery, multiple DWI's, and even sexual assault.

So why are they driving? Because new Dallas city code allows those who have completed their felony sentences five years ago or longer, to sign up and drive.

But cities like Houston, for example, have much stricter 10-year felony prohibitions that would have denied permits to dozens of drivers that gained a Dallas permit.

Questions about oversight of Dallas rideshare began months after a December 2014 vote by Dallas City Council to regulate all rideshare drivers.

Under the new regulations, drivers would have to gain city permits to drive within the city limits, and their vehicles would have to pass a rigorous 31-point safety inspection (though that was later reduced to a 6-point inspection).
It was hoped that the regulations would allow the city of Dallas to gain better oversight of the rideshare drivers and their vehicles.

But in August 2015, troubling events began.

Uber driver Talal Ali Chammout has been arrested for sexually assaulting one of his passengers in her home.

Talal Chammout, 56 at the time, drove for Uber and was charged with sexually assaulting his passenger. Dallas police said he followed his passenger inside indoors and struck her on the back of the head, then sexually assaulted her. An arrest affidavit said she woke up with Chammout on top of her.

Uber issued a statement saying Chammout presented a fake city driver’s permit and the company “mistakenly” issued driver’s privileges to Chammout. Uber did not perform a background check on Chammout because the company thought he already had gained his city permit after passing a city background check.

Had Uber or Dallas officials performed a background check, they would have discovered Chammout would have been ineligible to gain a driver’s permit. That’s because he had convictions on weapons charges that included attempts to "purchase AT-4 anti-tank rockets and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles." He was released from federal prison in 2012.

Loai Faheem Laila

In November of 2015, Dallas police arrested 34-year-old Faheem Laila, a Lyft driver, accused of sexually assaulting one of his passengers in Uptown.

Laila allegedly picked up his female passenger in a black Chevrolet Tahoe, and after a short distance began to inappropriately touch her. When she resisted, he allegedly pulled into a side street and raped her in the back of the Tahoe. Then, he later dropped her off at a Central Expressway gas station, according to the police report.

That same month, another Uber driver with a criminal past, Arian Yusufzai, ran a red light in Uptown and was broadsided by a truck. Yusufzai was not faulted for the accident, but one of his passengers was severely injured.

Sarah Milburn, a 23-year-old University Park passenger, was in the back seat when Yusufzai's Honda Odyssey collided with a Ford F-150 pickup. The crash left Milburn a quadriplegic, struggling to regain her life.

“The government should be regulating this, and should be kind of making it safe for other people just to use the business,” Milburn said.

Milford said she now questions rideshare safety and enforcement claims.

"You are basically playing the lottery when you get in the car with one of them,” she said. "You don't know what you are getting."

Uber officials declined an on-camera interview but told WFAA they "work closely with the city of Dallas to help insure compliance."

Yet one Uber driver provided us with an email from an Uber representative saying: "Dallas presently does not require any permits for drivers"... and to "please continue with your Uber rides."

Uber officials, when contacted by WFAA, discounted the email.

"We looked into that email and that appears to be a one-time, human error," an Uber spokesperson responded.

Lyft officials also declined an on-camera interview, but sent a statement citing their commitment to follow all city rules.

Dallas officials, including the City Attorney and Transportation Department officials declined to speak on-camera about our findings.

City officials, however, said they plan on beefing up enforcement of rideshare regulations.

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