Taxicab regs up for grabs

highway linesROCKVILLE – In a work session on three bills designed to update the existing taxicab regulations and incorporate Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) into the county Councilmember Roger Berliner called TNCs like Uber and Lyft a “disruptive entrant” into the county’s taxi fleet.

“There are two aspects of the legislation that have not been addressed to my satisfaction,” Berliner said. “One of them involves our disability community, which we have decided we really need to know about these sorts of issues before including them in our legislation…We also need to have a better understanding of the relationship between drivers and our existing taxicab companies. I do find it surprising that for a county that regulates the color of cabs that we don’t seem to have any regulatory oversight over what is charged to the drivers, and drivers struggle to make close to a minimum wage.”

Representatives from Uber and Lyft, area taxi companies and county regulatory agencies attended Monday’s session, held by the County Council’s Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T&E) Committee.

                The three proposed bills, first introduced in a county council meeting in October, are:

·         Expedited Bill 53-14, which would increase the age limits for vehicles used as taxicabs, allow software-based meters to be used, and amend certain requirements for color and markings of vehicles used as taxicabs.

·         Bill 54-14, which would require TNCs and operators to obtain a license to operate in the county and meet certain registration, insurance and accessibility standards.

·         Bill 55-14, which would require the County Department of Transportation to implement a centralized electronic dispatch system and permit the director to require certain taxicab operators to participate in them.

In the TNC model practiced by Uber and Lyft, a client seeking a ride contacts the company, usually through a smart phone app, and the company places the client in contact with an available driver. Unlike traditional taxi services, TNC drivers often use their own vehicles to drive clients and may only work a few hours a week.

Berliner and Zuhirah Washington, general manager of Uber D.C., sparred briefly over the question of fingerprinting, which is required for taxicab drivers but not currently required for Uber drivers.

Berliner said he needed to hear justification as to why fingerprinting is inappropriate.

 “We believe that our background checks are better, more reliable, more detailed, more rigorous than those imposed via the Livescan (fingerprinting) process,” Washington said, adding that Livescan background checks are often out of date.

Washington said Uber investigates prospective drivers’ records at county courthouses, looking back seven years rather than the five currently required by Montgomery County.

“I don’t see how this is necessarily an either/or conversation,” Berliner said. “You would be free to continue to use the background check you currently employ with the added comfort of a fingerprint background check which many people feel does fill in certain gaps. And at $35 in 72 hours, what could be the objection to adding that to your processes?”

Washington responded that in many areas there is a lack of public confidence in state background checks and the $35 cost was prohibitive to some of the company’s part-time drivers.

Local taxi representatives expressed their concern at maintaining a “level playing field” with the entrance of TNCs to the market.

“The public protection has to be the same,” said Lee Barnes, president of Barwood Taxi. “If you wanted to drive for them, you could do it in a heartbeat. If you wanted to drive one of mine, it would take you a week to get the license. I don’t think that’s that long, but if I could do it in two days, all the better.”

Rob Alexander, CEO of Montgomery County-based Orange Taxi, wrote a letter to the council in December warning them of the dangers of allowing underinsured drivers to operate in the county.

“Drivers, passengers and pedestrians face enormous risks with Uber, Lyft or other so-called ridesharing drivers,” Alexander wrote. “These drivers’ primary line of defense in an accident is their personal insurance coverage, but that insurance coverage simply will not hold water. When they get in an accident, they are operating as a commercial driver. It is the law that anyone who picks up a passenger for money must have primary commercial automobile liability insurance coverage…Montgomery County has been criticized often over the past few years of being unfriendly to new business. But new business cannot come at the hands of forsaking the public’s safety. If Montgomery County continues to turn a blind eye to the illegal operations of Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing drivers in this county, you can be absolutely assured that the blame will fall squarely at the feet of our elected officials who now know about the massive insurance problems with these companies and yet have done nothing to adequately protect the public.”

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