Uber drivers, taxi industry air discontent with ride-sharing service

A short film by a taxicab industry group accuses Uber of failing to properly protect the public, but the ride-sharing pioneer may be more worried about its own disgruntled drivers.

In Philadelphia, drivers of the premiere Uber Black service are being enlisted to tattle on fellow UberX drivers whom the city says lack proper licensing -- and it's working, according to a report by Philadelphia Magazine. (Uber Black operates like a chauffeur or limo service; UberX involves people driving their own cars.)

Municipal authorities in Philadelphia who have jurisdiction over the city's taxis and limos circulated a memo to Uber Black drivers, the only Uber drivers authorized to operate there, urging them to report UberX drivers to the city. The incentive, of course, is that fewer cheaper UberX drivers on the streets means more business for Uber Black drivers. If money talks, Uber Black drivers are listening.

"According to PPA (Philadelphia Parking Authority) sources, the agency has been receiving tips left and right, including videos taken by Uber drivers of UberX drivers picking up passengers," says the report.

Spotify your Uber ride

In other Uber news, a partnership with online music service Spotify that will allow passengers to listen to their own play lists is coming under fire by some drivers. Passengers who have a premium account with Spotify will be able to log in to their accounts within the Uber app and then select a playlist from their own music library.

Allowing paying passengers to control the music may seem like a great customer-service perk, but drivers are airing concerns on their online forum, Uber People.

"This particular issue has the makings of a lot of potential lawsuits," writes one forum member. "Bad move on Uber's part. It's hard enough to get the drunks home without being distracted by their perpetual disturbances…just a vehicle of loud, obnoxious drunks is punishment enough. Adding loud music only adds another unsafe condition for the drivers."

Let's go to the film

Meanwhile, the taxi industry is also sounding off on ride-sharing services both through civil disobedience and the media. Taxi drivers protested recently against ride-sharing companies at San Francisco International Airport recently causing gridlock and leaving many passengers waiting for rides. Cabbies contend that ride-sharing is unsafe and should be regulated.

Similar issues were echoed in a recently released short film made by a taxi industry group that criticizes Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. "Who's Driving You?" produced by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA), includes comments from attorneys, public officials and transportation experts about the ride-sharing services.

Uber has taken the world by storm, with operations in dozens of U.S. cities and 45 countries. But it's been on a collision course with taxi and limo companies. They say drivers for UberX -- the cheapest option offered by parent company Uber -- have an unfair advantage because of the lower prices they can charge for carrying passengers.

Those lower prices are possible because Uber dodges the regulations and requirements that taxi and limo drivers face, says Dave Sutton, spokesman for the TLPA.

Uber bills itself as a technology company that connects riders with drivers, rather than a taxi company. Customers request rides from Uber, using the company's smartphone app. Drivers for the UberX service use their own cars to pick up and deliver passengers. Payment is charged to the customers' credit cards on file so no cash changes hands.

There's plenty of back and forth and finger pointing about driver safety and vehicle safety between the TLPA and TaxiFacts.com, which is attacking misinformation from taxi companies. Uber is a member of TaxiFacts.

"Our members have a financial stake in the outcome of what happens with ride-sharing," Sutton concedes.

So what should you know if you want to hitch a ride with Uber or become one of its drivers? And how does your car insurance come into play?

Passenger safety: Do you really know who's driving?

In the TLPA film, Ray Mundy, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, faults Uber for not using "police-vetted background checks" for drivers.

The film opens with the case of an Uber driver in Orlando who was charged with battery after fondling a passenger. The driver's account has since been suspended and Uber says it's ready to assist authorities in an investigation.

"Rider safety is Uber's No. 1 priority," the company said in a statement. "We take reports like this seriously and are treating the matter with the utmost urgency and care."

The company also says drivers undergo comprehensive background checks that include the review of seven years' of federal and county courthouse records. It also checks drivers against a criminal database and looks at their motor vehicle records. Uber says it prohibits anyone from driving for the company who has had a DUI or drug-related violation in the past seven years. Drivers also can't have been involved in a fatal accident or hit-and-run accident, or driven with no insurance or with a suspended license.

The TLPA is also unhappy with the lack of safety checks for Uber vehicles.

Uber says vehicles must be from 2004 or newer, and that most states require drivers to undergo annual vehicle inspections by a certified mechanic.

However, a check of AAA's website shows only about one-third of states require annual vehicle inspections; most do not require any form of safety inspection.

Regulations and licenses

The TLPA film also claims Uber is really a taxi service, and shouldn't be exempt from regulations.

"It's simply smoke and mirrors," for Uber to say it's different from a taxi or limo service and avoid regulation, Mundy says.

For example, the film says Uber drivers exempt from regulations can avoid having to obtain business licenses and pay taxes on their revenue. "There's no reason why they shouldn't follow the rules," Sutton says.

Sutton also takes issue with how state laws vary for the nascent ride-sharing industry. "The best we would hope for is a single set of regulations that would support public safety," Sutton says. "If the rules need to change, they should change for everyone."

In New York, for example, Uber drivers have commercial licenses, they have to carry minimum amounts of auto insurance, and their vehicles are registered with the Taxi and Limousine Commission, Sutton says.

Uber says it works with authorities to set regulations, and 14 jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati, now have regulations for ride-sharing companies in place.

Car insurance and ride-sharing

The TLPA film also faults Uber drivers for not having commercial auto insurance, which is far more costly than insurance for personal vehicles.

Robert Passmore, senior director of personal lines policy with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), who spoke in the film about insurance issues, says his organization isn't opposed to ride-sharing operations. "We support innovation in industry," and some PCI member auto insurance companies sell special insurance that covers ride-sharing service drivers.

But he cautions Uber drivers not to rely on their personal auto insurance policies for coverage. "If drivers do this they need to be aware of the risk they are taking."

The auto insurance that Uber offers to drivers has evolved over the past year, he says, and the company now provides $1 million worth of commercial liability coverage from the time a driver accepts a request for a ride until the passenger is dropped off.

The company also provides $1 million worth of uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage in case another motorist causes a wreck and doesn't have enough insurance.

If the Uber driver has comprehensive and collision coverage on his vehicle, the company provides contingent comprehensive and collision coverage up to $50,000 per incident, with a $1,000 deductible.

Before the driver accepts a passenger, but is available to pick up riders, Uber has a policy that covers driver liability for bodily injury up to $50,000 per person per accident, or $100,000 total, as well as $25,000 in coverage for property damage. It kicks in if a driver's personal insurance policy won't cover the claim.

Passmore says California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., have passed laws that require Uber's coverage to be primary from the time a driver turns the app on until he turns it off, and he expects more states to tackle the question of insurance for ride-sharing drivers when legislatures return to session next year.

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