Uber driver charged with fatal shootings at Kalamazoo, Mich., Kia dealership

Uber confirmed that Dalton drove for the company, but it did not confirm reports he was driving for Uber that day.

Photo credit: REUTERS

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Uber said Monday there was nothing it could do to prevent six murders allegedly committed on Saturday by a company driver in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Jason Dalton, 45, admitted “that he took people’s lives” while taking Uber fares, according to prosecutors investigating the shooting spree.

He is accused of killing six people and injuring two others on Saturday at a Kalamazoo Kia dealership, an apartment building and a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

He was charged Monday with six counts of open murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder and eight felony firearms violations and faces up to life in prison.

Dalton was approved as an Uber driver on Jan. 25 after a background check revealed a clean criminal record. He had an average customer rating of 4.73 stars out of five after giving about 100 total rides, which Uber Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan said gave no indication Sullivan had any issues.

Concerns over Uber’s background check process have intensified in the wake of the incident. Critics say the company does not do enough to ensure riders are safe. The company does not collect driver fingerprints or meet in person with drivers, some critics also note.

Margaret Richardson, a former chief of staff under U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who currently serves on Uber’s safety advisory board, said during a conference call that attention placed on Uber in the wake of the incident serves only to distract from more relevant issues.

“The focus on Uber is a distraction from the availability of guns in the hands of people who perhaps shouldn’t have such easy access to them,” Richardson said, saying there is nothing Uber could have done to prevent the shootings.

The incident comes after Uber said this month that it would pay $ 28.5 million to settle federal litigation brought by customers who alleged the company misrepresented the quality of its safety practices and fees.

Sullivan said Uber’s screening process, which includes an examination of records at the local, county and federal levels, did not turn up anything concerning about Dalton. He said that would have been the case even if the background check process was different since he had no criminal history.

“There were no red flags, if you will, that we could anticipate something like this,” Sullivan said.

Uber uses the investigation service Chckr and databases including the National Sex Offender Public website to screen candidates. It also prohibits drivers and riders from carrying firearms.

Some critics said the shootings could have been prevented had a “panic button” feature been included on the U.S. version of Uber’s smartphone app. The feature, which was added in India following an attack by an Uber driver there, allows riders to tap a button alerting Uber and police.

Critics say the button could have been utilized when passenger Matt Mellen rode with Dalton roughly an hour before the first shooting. Mellen told CBS TV affiliate WWMT that Dalton sped through medians, ran stop signs and sideswiped a car before he was able to jump out at a stop.

Mellen said he tried to alert the company after the ride but was unsuccessful.

Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner who also serves on the company’s safety advisory board, said such a feature would not work in the U.S. He said Uber would not be able to compete with the resources of the 911 system, and it could confuse riders as to whether to call 911 or hit the button first, costing police precious time.

“In the U.S., 911 is the panic button,” Davis said.

Sullivan said the company will suspend drivers immediately upon reports of violence while conducting an investigation but will talk to drivers accused of bad driving before any action is taken in order.

The shootings are unlikely to ease concerns among some about the safety of ride-sharing services. A Kelley Blue Book study set to be released in the coming weeks found that only 33 percent of respondents considered ride-sharing “safe,” while 48 percent said they would be uncomfortable riding alone with a ride-sharing driver.

Despite those concerns, KBB analyst Karl Brauer said that because the Kalamazoo incident was isolated, it is unlikely to affect Uber’s bottom line or its ridership numbers.

“It raises the question [about safety] in the average person’s mind, though,” he said.

Changes in ridership habits are unlikely unless more such incidents occur or the investigation of the Kalamazoo shootings exposes potential holes in Uber’s screening process, Brauer said.

“There’s more incentive” for Uber to invest in autonomous technology in the wake of the Kalamazoo incident, Brauer said.

He said Uber is investing in autonomous technology in part to mitigate safety risks. Getting rid of human drivers would eliminate a major cost, as well as risks related to driver behavior, he said.

General Motors spokesman Vijay Iyer said the incident has not affected GM’s relationship with Lyft, Uber’s main rival in the ride-sharing segment. GM said in January that it would invest $ 500 million into Lyft and would have a seat on the company’s board.

“We are saddened by the incident but it won’t change anything in our relationship with Lyft,” Iyer said. He directed questions about Lyft’s security and screening to a company spokeswoman, who could not immediately be reached.

Michigan State Police said the shootings began around 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday with the report of a woman wounded outside an apartment building in Richland Township at the eastern edge of Kalamazoo County.

At about 10 p.m. ET, a father and son were killed at Seelye Kia of Kalamazoo. Four women were killed about 15 minutes later outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant in nearby Texas Township.

It is not clear what motivated Dalton to commit the alleged crimes.

Reuters contributed to this report.

You can reach John Irwin at jirwin@crain.com.


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