The San Francisco Public Press reports that on Thursday, March 12th, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted to rescind an obscure footnote that granted sweeping confidentiality to safety reports that must be filed by Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies about accidents and assaults connected with their services across the state, reversing a long-standing policy of extraordinary secrecy. While this may be the beginning of a new era of transparency, previous safety reports will remain confidential for now.
Commission President Marybel Batjer declared that the decision would promote transparency not only in an industry that plays an increasingly outsized role in the lives of Californians, but also in the commission’s own often-criticized regulation of it. The commission’s 5-0 decision removes the secrecy footnote for all future annual reports that each ride-hailing firm must file. The reports cover subjects including the total number and location of trips, instances in which drivers are allegedly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, alleged assaults involving the services and traffic accidents.
The vote left the confidentiality clause in place for previously filed annual safety reports. This position of the commission has continued to frustrate officials at local government agencies who say they need the data to improve traffic management and safety. Those reports contain data on thousands of traffic accidents that occurred around the state from 2014 to 2019.
The one-sentence confidentiality clause being overturned was inserted deep into lengthy 2013 regulations as footnote 42. This was done without public notice, amid intense industry lobbying. During the last six years, the commission has cited the footnote as the basis for withholding the safety data from members of the media, the public, and even other government agencies.
As the commission concealed this data, it conducted few studies of the firms’ driver training programs, the adequacy of their programs to screen driving records and whether there are patterns of accidents that could be addressed through safety measures, according to the agency’s responses to the newspaper’s requests under the California Public Records Act. A previously unreported agency PowerPoint summary of the secret annual reports showed that the number of accidents acknowledged by the ride-hailing firms totaled more than 1,100 per month statewide as of August 2015.
A separate study by the commission and the California Department of Insurance, which was also previously unpublicized, determined that insurance companies incurred $185.6 million in payouts from 9,388 claims related to traffic accidents involving ride-hailing vehicles across California for the years 2014 to 2016.
The decision explains the agency’s reasoning, noting that when California became the first state to regulate ride-hailing, in 2013, the commission required each firm to submit the detailed annual reports. At the time, it allowed the “nascent” firms to submit them confidentially because it accepted their claims that making the data public could compromise sensitive information and place them at “an unfair competitive disadvantage.” According to the decision, since then the agency has gained a greater understanding of ride-hailing operations that requires ending the presumption of confidentiality. At this point there are no rivals to Uber and Lyft’s huge market share, a fact that undercuts their claims that releasing the data would harm their business.
The commission has gradually adopted stricter standards for all regulated companies seeking to keep records they submit secret. For decades it was routine for firms in various industries to simply stamp their papers with a confidentiality notice. But the law has evolved and companies are “no longer entitled to a presumption of confidentiality,” says the decision. Under commission rules adopted in 2017, they must make a detailed showing of why each page, section or field of a document must be confidential based on current law and the information at issue.
A spokesman for Uber declined to comment on the vote, and a spokeswoman for Lyft did not respond to a request for comment.