- Alfred LaGasse
- Posted: April 22, 2013 at 9:40 am
Apps that allow people to hail taxicabs and limousines are spreading rapidly across the United States. Some of these are wonderful innovations, allowing a passenger to hail a taxi with the push of a button. Others, called “rogue apps,” can amount to little more than 21st century hitchhiking, and can be every bit as dangerous.
The first major rogue app to appear was Uber. It showed up in cities and didn’t ask anyone for permission to start operating on-demand vehicle service. When regulatory officials caught up to them to try to make them play by the same rules as taxicab and limousine companies, Uber unleashed its followers and PR machine in an attempt to browbeat authorities under the guise of supporting innovation. In some cases it has worked, while in other instances Uber has complied with local for-hire vehicle regulations or is in litigation.
Now comes an even greater threat to public safety, the so-called peer-to-peer ride sharing apps. These allow almost anyone with a vehicle who can pass an undefined background check to suddenly play taxi driver on a Saturday night to pick up extra cash. These include apps such as SideCar and Lyft, both of which purportedly claim that no one can regulate them because passengers pay suggested “donations” rather than a required fare.
The vast majority of licensed taxi drivers in the US, for example, have to undergo stringent criminal background checks through a government regulatory agency. If these drivers for Lyft or SideCar are not governed by a regulatory agency, how can these companies assure us that their drivers have clean criminal records? A Google search — or will they simply sign a piece of paper self-certifying their own clean record? These companies are fond of saying they run background checks, yet are vague as to how they do that.
Such apps open wide the door for sex offenders, felons or just plain bad drivers to get behind the wheel and drive unwitting passengers around town. At South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, this year, The New Yorker magazine reported that drivers for Uber recruited for the conference were given as little as five minutes of instruction before they hit the street and started picking up passengers.
Speaking of passengers, as someone who has been involved in the taxicab industry for decades, I can say that drivers meet all kinds of people. Many are nice, quiet passengers. Others can be violent, angry, drunk, belligerant, cheap, haughty, or any combination thereof. The dangers that can ensue when a relatively untrained driver meets up with a difficult passenger are easily imaginable. In Washington, DC, a passenger has launched a $750,000 lawsuit involving an Uber driver who allegedly slapped him, spit in his face and told him he “hates Americans and homosexuals.”
Don’t worry, say the rogue apps. They tell us that their services will, over time, weed out the bad apples by rating passengers. This practice opens up the enormous possibility of discrimination. Secret ratings of passengers fosters and institutionalizes unlawful denial of service based on a passenger’s race, age, sex, neighborhood, use of a service animal, or use of a wheelchair. Passengers could be effectively banned from future service because they are a minority, or because the driver didn’t want a service dog in his vehicle, or because he felt the payment or “donation” wasn’t big enough.
Regulations provide assurances that all passengers must be treated equally. Limited regulation is crucial to the survival of accountable, non-discriminatory service. Regulation sets the number of taxicabs on the streets. Without it, the streets would be flooded with taxis. Are you a student who needs an extra 50 bucks tonight? All you have to do is sign up as an app driver, drive your car around and poach customers from the taxicab driver working the same streets. The city isn’t counting you as a licensed driver bcause you aren’t regulated.
Now imagine 250 students, or 1,000 students, all trying to do the same thing on Saturday night in the same city and you get the picture of what deregulation looks like: utter chaos where quality of service plummets and every ride turns into a negotiation. Equally critical, these students presumeably have regular car insurance, but regular insurance does not cover commercial transportation service. So the students and the passengers would both put themselves at great risk.
To put part of this issue in context, consider that in the 1970s and 1980s deregulation, including in the taxicab industry, swept across America. Cities found it was the wrong direction (higher fares, increased trip refusals, significant overcharging of passengers, other illegal activities, aggressive solicitation, vehicles operating without insurance, deterioration of vehicles, dramatic consumer complaints) and have since re-regulated taxicabs.
The taxicab industry believes in limited regulation that provides for the safety of the public, including commercial taxicab insurance; that sets fares to avoid price gouging; and that serves all areas of a community at all times in a nondiscriminatory manner.
Rogue apps, meanwhile, refuse to characterize themselves as taxicab dispatching services and insist they do not need to comply with local laws governing all other taxicab dispatching services.
What about serving the elderly, low-income or disabled? The elderly may not have a smartphone with which to use an app in the first place. Low-income residents may not have a credit card, a requirement of most apps. Passengers with disabilities—especially those who use a wheelchair—might as well not bother hailing Uber, SideCar or Lyft for an accesisble vehicle with a ramp, because those services claim they don’t have to comply with regulations so they don’t have to offer those types of vehicles in their fleets.
I want to be clear: no one is saying the public shouldn’t have access to transportation apps. The public wants apps, and our industry wants apps that connect them with more customers. However, for a reasonable debate over how apps are used to move forward, the public and regulators need to fully understand the dangers being opened up by drivers with little to no training or background checks, operating vehicles that are not subject to the same safety and insurance standards as regulated taxicabs.
If rogue apps are allowed to continue, it’s an inevitability that passengers will be harmed at the hands of unprofessional drivers—leading us too late to realize we should have done more to enforce taxicab regulations that protect public safety, guard against discrimination and ensure community-wide service.
Alfred LaGasse is the CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.