By Barry Rascovar
August 14, 2014 — Maryland’s Public Service Commission struck a blow for the rule of law this week when it declared the popular app-based, ride-sharing company Uber Technologies isn’t exempt from regulations other companies must follow if they want to transport paying customers.
It is “clear and unambiguous” that Uber is a passenger-carrying, for-profit, public transportation service, according to the PSC.
As such, Uber is not free to make its own rules and ignore Maryland law.
Just because Uber is using innovative Internet technologies to reinvent the taxicab industry doesn’t mean it can arrogantly write its own dictum and thumb its nose at statutes that govern the way other common carriers operate.
Companies like Uber seem to believe that because they are Internet-based, they can run their kingdoms according to their edicts and decrees.
Isn’t the Internet all about unfettered communication and freedom?
Brave, New World
Doesn’t a business based on Internet technologies have the right to do what it pleases, regardless of the consequences or existing statutes?
To follow that logic is to abandon all governance in favor of a libertarian society stripped of legal restraints.
Thankfully, the PSC wasn’t buying Uber’s scary vision of a brave, new fee-for-transport world. If we live in a country ruled by laws, then the laws must be applied across the board.
There’s no doubt Uber offers customers a good deal.
But huge dangers lurk as well.
Because Uber doesn’t want to play by the PSC’s rules, it sets its own customer charges. Unlike other cab companies, it applies higher “surge pricing” during busy times. It hasn’t bothered to apply for a common carrier license from the PSC, either.
Uber’s drivers don’t have Maryland passenger-for-hire licenses, which means its drivers haven’t undergone state criminal background checks or driver record checks.
Uber drivers don’t have passenger-for-hire vehicle insurance: If there’s an accident, the driver’s personal auto insurance won’t pay the passenger’s medical bills, or for damages.
No Safety Net?
(Uber claims on its website it has a “commercial insurance policy for rideshare drivers.” But it also claims “all UberBLACK, UberSUV, or uberTAXI rides are provided by commercially licensed and insured partners and drivers. Those transportation providers are covered by commercial insurance policies, in accordance with local and state requirements” — a statement that isn’t true in Maryland.)
Without a government-imposed safety net, passengers take their lives in their hands when they travel with Uber.
“Technology is not a substitute for regulatory oversight,” says Paula Carmody, the Maryland People’s Council, who usually is critical of PSC actions. This time, the official whose job is to look out for consumers applauded the regulatory commissioners. They “got it right.”
The commissioners also recognized that the Internet riding-sharing revolution is transforming the passenger-for-hire industry. They directed their staff to come up with new regulations within 90 days reflecting evolutionary changes in transport services.
The staff will propose ways to make sure Uber-type companies and drivers have sufficient insurance; that their vehicles are safe and inspected; that drivers are qualified, and that new technologies affecting rates and pick-ups can be applied to all of the state’s taxi-style companies.
Uber, though, continues to act like a spoiled child caught trying to empty the cookie jar.
It railed against the “PSC’s attempt to take choice and competition away from Maryland residents.”
Uber said it will “continue to defend the rights of riders and drivers to have access to the safest, most reliable transportation alternatives on the road.”
The notion that Uber cannot compete if it plays by the state’s rules is buncombe.
What Uber really wants is a built-in advantage over traditional cab and sedan companies. That can only be accomplished by operating outside Maryland law that governs the cab industry.
Level Playing Field
Uber has opened the door for other companies to benefit from technology innovations it has brought to passenger-for-hire car service. That’s what the PSC wants to see in its new regulations.
In other states, Uber is getting its way. It can continue its outlaw-status with minimal state interference.
Not in Maryland, where Uber is being asked to recognize the importance of regulatory laws designed to ensure public safety.
That’s what government is supposed to do — even in an anarchic Internet Age.
# # #