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California Must Show Uber And Lyft Tough Love

Ashley Yang |
July 18, 2014 | 10:00 p.m. PDT


Last month, Uber asked its customers to protest proposed regulations on ride-sharing companies on Twitter with the hashtag #CALovesUber. Thousands of Californians, namely those residing in San Francisco and Los Angeles, tweeted the slogan, tagging their local and state representatives and asking them to (in Uber’s words) “protect innovation.” 

READ MORE: Uber Customers Rally On Twitter To Protest Regulations

California does love Uber, and its rival service Lyft, for sure. I know I do: after moving to a state to where the cost of driving is almost prohibitively expensive, the ability to request a safe, affordable ride from my smartphone and have it arrive within minutes has made an important difference to my mobility and independence, especially when public transit is inaccessible or takes too long. And it has for many others like me, who either cannot afford to drive or don’t need to drive regularly.

For the regular users, the legislation introduced to the California Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee does seem like an attack on an innovative form of transportation by taxicab companies, driver’s unions and other “entrenched interests.” But they merely intended to hold ride-sharing services to safety and insurance standards comparable to those of traditional taxicabs. And, judging by the number and severity of the PR disasters that Uber has recently experienced, tighter regulations are much needed.  

Olivia Nuzzi, a reporter for the Daily Beast ended up in the car of an Uber driver who took stalker-like pictures of her walking down the street, hours before she called the ride. She encountered another driver who found her on Facebook using her full name (obtained from the app) and messaged one of her friends to ask if “she [was] single lol,” even though the company assures riders that only their first name is visible to drivers. (An Uber spokeswoman said that in the State of New York, Uber drivers are legally required to fill out trip logs that include the rider’s first and last name, which is why the driver was able to access Nuzzi’s full name.) 

READ MORE: Lyft’s NYC Launch Blocked By Injunction

An Uber driver struck and killed a 6-year old girl on New Year’s Day in San Francisco this year. Uber  claims that since the driver was not working for Uber at the time (meaning that he was not logged on to the app), the company is not liable for the accident. The driver, however, claims that the accident occurred because he was distracted when looking for new fares on the app. 

In March, a Chicago woman sued Uber Technologies Inc., claiming that an Uber driver “repeatedly fondled” her “legs, groin area, and breasts.” And just last month, an Uber driver was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman after picking her up in front of a club in West Hollywood. 

The changes proposed in AB 612 and AB 2293 would mandate drug and alcohol testing of drivers, criminal background checks, driver fingerprinting and bans of anyone convicted of certain crimes. In addition, the ride-sharing companies would be required to have a preventative maintenance program for driver’s vehicles, advise drivers that their personal insurance might not provide coverage for incidents sustained during commercial driving, carry primary insurance like taxi companies do and defend drivers against lawsuits for loss or injury when working. 

Currently, Uber and Lyft offer drivers $1 million in commercial liability insurance (the same as taxi companies), but the company policy is only triggered when the drivers’ personal policies stop paying. Drivers for Uber and Lyft would still not be required to obtain a commercial driving license like taxi drivers do, but their cars would have to be registered with the state.

After speaking with Sam Farias, who has driven for both Uber and Lyft, it seems blatantly clear to me that these laws are needed to define the legal gray areas that enable ride-sharing companies shirk accountability to both drivers and riders. The low standard of driver background checks alone is shocking: Farias said he once gave a Lyft to an Uber driver who said he would have preferred to drive for Lyft but “drove for Uber only because he had a DUI on his record,” leading Lyft to reject his application. Between the two, Farias said he trusts Lyft, his current employer, more - Lyft seems “more serious” about its background checks while Uber’s, he claimed, are “subpar [compared] to the standard promoted on their website.” In addition, Lyft has a screening process where new drivers must give an experienced driver a ride-along to ensure safe driving.

In light of the insurance limbo involving the child killed on New Year’s Day, Farias said he believes that ride-sharing companies should not only cover drivers when they have a passenger in the car, but start coverage as soon as the driver has received the ride request and is en route to the passenger's location, continuing through the end of the ride. This is a more reasonable definition of “working for Uber” than the one issued immediately after the accident took place. When a driver is on the road for any Uber-related reason, they should be considered at that time an “employee of Uber,” even though the meter hasn’t started running yet. When Uber tried denying liability for the accident, it was exploiting the lack of worker protections specific enough to apply to the kind of independent contracting relationship Uber has with its drivers.

READ MORE: The Beginner's Guide To Ride Sharing In Los Angeles

Implementing these heightened standards will cause Uber and Lyft to incur substantial costs, for sure. But their recent popularity stems from riders’ beliefs that although they are using a cheaper service, they are not being shortchanged in safety and protection. Therefore, they have more to lose if incidents similar to the New Year’s incident become more frequent, and they no doubt will be, if companies continue to be enabled by legal ambiguity and refuse to be accountable for accidents by drivers when they are “officially on the clock.”

Ultimately, Uber and Lyft are not car or limousine companies that provide vehicles and drivers to transport passengers; they are technology companies, whose purpose is to connect drivers and riders (for a hefty commission) and facilitate payment of services rendered. But in practice, the way that Uber and Lyft operate differs little from the way cab companies do. A Lyft driver receives a ride request from a nearby user, goes to pick him/her up, and runs a meter from pick-up to drop-off. The only difference is that such drivers own the car they drive. That distinction is technical once you draw the parallel between a cab driver getting into a company-owned taxi to start his shift and a Lyft driver tapping “driver mode” in the app to begin receiving calls. And since they are indeed technology companies who already track the trips each driver gives, it would be easy for them to use this data for insurance purposes. 

Regardless of whether these bills were championed by special interests, the regulations they mandate seek to place ride-sharing companies and traditional cab companies on a level playing field, upholding equitable competition in a free market. Who captures the greatest market share will depend on who can provide the kind of service more desired by consumers. It is worth noting that ride-sharing has its own advantages: no car maintenance expenses for the company, and a smaller carbon footprint. The speed at which service is rendered keeps unaccompanied people safe at night and drunk people out of the driver’s seat. 

#CALovesUber, as do I. But after a rocky history of passenger safety and legal limbo, it’s time to show ride-sharing some tough love. 


Reach Columnist Ashley Yang here, or follow her on Twitter. Read more "Unpopular Opinions" here.



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