Smartphone ride-share apps Uber, Lyft, facing strict regulation

11:42 AM, Feb 9, 2014   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- Now to the debate about some hi-tech phone apps:

It's Saturday night, and you or your loved ones are out and about, and need a ride home.

Who are you going to call?

You could call a taxi, and, perhaps, wait awhile.

Or you could use one of those smartphone "apps" like Uber or Lyft to find a ride.

Just tap on the app and see on your screen, in real time, all of the Uber or Lyft drivers nearby who can come to you in minutes -- just tap the app again to summon one of them.

No phone call and no dispatcher are involved, and since you have already submitted your credit card information when you signed up for the service, no money changes hands.  The total cost of the trip is posted on the app before you decide to hire the driver.

And the driver will likely drive you for less than a taxi would cost.

State lawmakers say all they want are regulations to make sure the drivers and cars are safe.

So, those businesses may soon face some heavy, state regulations.

And a lot of their customers worry that the proposed regulations are so heavy-handed they might chase the businesses out of state.

As it is, traditional taxi drivers hate the new app-based ride-referral services.

"Their way of working is not like us," said Tesfaye Lagibo of Atlanta, while waiting in his taxi, in line, for a fare outside a downtown Atlanta hotel.

Lagibo said that because of strict government regulations on taxi cabs, he can't compete with the new guys such as Uber and Lyft.

"They don't have a [taxi] stand, they don't have lines, they do it everywhere.... We don't have opportunity to go outside to get a customer."

The bill that several state lawmakers introduced would require businesses such as Uber and Lyft to comply with taxi-cab-style regulations -- complete with heavy fines for drivers who disobey.

Representative Alan Powell, (R) Hart County, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, said it's a public safety issue.

"The drivers need to have background checks, they need to have driving record checks."

And, he said, they need to have liability insurance. 

But Keith Radford, the general manager of Uber in Atlanta, said the drivers already do, even though Uber does not employ the drivers, but "partners" with them.

"The fact that we don't employ any of the drivers, that makes that much more important, to make sure that we're putting properly vetted people onto our system. See, we go above and beyond in terms of making sure that the drivers that we put on the system that are picking up Uber riders are screened in terms of the background check process, to make sure that none of the drivers have felonies, DUIs. And so, you know, we do a screening, seven year background check, to make sure that anything that does surface, we can address immediately.... And if there's any collision, accident, Uber makes sure to cover that."

Meet an Uber driver named Buzz, who went through all the background checks and training:

Buzz's other part-time job -- he's a Republican state representative from Gwinnett County, Buzz Brockway.  Brockway is critical of the bill and of his fellow legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who support it.

"They're trying to take regulations that we have on the taxi industry and apply them across the board to companies like Uber. And what we should be doing is looking at those regulations that are on the taxi cab industry and getting rid of most of them. It's just outrageous some of the barriers that we've built up in Atlanta and around the state, barriers to taxicab industries. We're heading in the wrong direction. We shouldn't be looking to regulate more, we should be looking to regulate less and let people exercise their entrepreneurial spirit and provide transportation to people." 

Rick Hewatt, the president of Checker Cab in Atlanta, supports the bill and agrees with Rep. Powell that the Number One issue is the safety of the public.  And right behind it, Hewatt said, is being able to stay competitive.

"We've had to abide by ordinances, in the city and the state, for decades. And a lot of companies come in here with no regulation. And to compete with that is not fair."

Hewatt pointed out that Checker Cab already has an app to assist people who want to "call" a taxi.  He said an upcoming app update will provide many of the same features and conveniences that the Uber and Lyft apps provide.

A happy Uber customer is Mary Margaret Oliver, another State Representative.  Oliver, (D) Decatur, said maybe the law should simply require Uber to do what Uber is already doing, and no more.  Don't regulate it like taxi cabs, she said, let taxi cabs become more like Uber. 

"I think this is a competition, and who's going to provide the best service for the best price is probably going to win."

She signed on as a sponsor of the bill, she said, so she could be involved in changing the initial version, and ultimately writing a final version that could stake out some middle ground.

"There are some safety issues. We do regulate taxis. We do regulate limousines. We regulate drivers. There's a history of safety provisions in relation to commercial carriers.... I see a lot of complaints and a lot of businesses complain that they're not getting a level playing field. And the taxi guy who has to have certain safety precautions, oversight, he's got a right to complain."

There will be hearings and a lot of debate over this at the Capitol over the next few weeks before the bill has a chance to get to the floor for a vote in the House.

Click to read the eight-page bill: House Bill 907

On Twitter: @JonShirek

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