By: Lauren Anthony
It seems that whenever the government wants to thwart individual rights or liberties, the arguments they are most fond of using are safety-related. And indeed, it is a legitimate function of government at both the state and the national level to ensure the safety of its citizens. But it is the misuse of this legitimate function that has been used to whittle away at our freedom to make choices consistent with our needs, beliefs, and lifestyles. Just such a battle is underway, particularly in Hillsborough County, in regard to the popular Lyft and Uber ridesharing services.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the services, Lyft and Uber are applications available for Android and iOS smartphones which allow users to request a paid ride through drivers independently contracted by one of these companies. Both driver and passenger profiles are exchanged via the app, including photos of each, as well as the vehicle, license plate number, and driver/passenger ratings. The service employs the use of GPS to locate both the driver and passenger. Feedback and conflict resolution are also available to the passengers via email or, in case of emergency, via phone.
The argument seems to center on the fact that these services, which began between 2009 and 2012, do not meet the conventional definition of taxis, limousines, or other for-hire vehicles. The Public Transportation Commission, in counties where commissions exist, regulates the conventional services. In Hillsborough County, the PTC are currently ticketing Lyft and Uber drivers via a “sting” operation in which they pose as passengers, request rides, and subsequently fine the drivers anywhere between $500 and $1,000 for an alleged failure to obtain the proper permits, licensing and/or insurance required for for-hire vehicles.
The problem is that Lyft and Uber drivers are using their own personal vehicles. The position of Hillsborough County seems to be that, where specific regulation doesn’t exist, it is necessary to enforce those most closely related to the service in question. However, in areas like Pinellas and Pasco Counties and even the City of Sarasota, the response has been different. Drivers in the first two counties operate freely since they have no PTC-like agencies; in Sarasota, the decision was more deliberate: the city council voted unanimously not to regulate the rideshare services.
This conflict has been the subject of both lawsuits and state legislative action, including a bill that was passed in the Florida House of Representatives (H.B. 509). Hillsborough Circuit Judge Paul Huey also denied a motion for injunction against Uber in August 2015. However, no definitive action has taken place to resolve the issue. The Florida Senate has not taken up a similar bill, and Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal has not issued an opinion in the lawsuit against Uber. Meanwhile, the ticketing is ongoing, with drivers currently submitting fines to their respective companies for payment.
Safety is the main topic of debate, and indeed, makes up the majority of H.B. 509. Proponents want to increase the level of background checks required for drivers, the type of licensure they must obtain, and the amount of insurance they or the companies by whom they are contracted must carry. On the surface it does not sound like much of a new “intrusion”. However, the services were started in order to offer the public, especially those outside of an immediate metro area, an alternative to taxis at a reduced cost. Many of the legal challenges have been initiated by commercial taxi companies, which are losing money to Uber and Lyft, insisting that they should be forced to “play by the same rules”. Requirements under a bill such as H.B. 509 (including a $5,000 per year “permit fee”) would increase the operating costs of companies like Lyft and Uber, which inevitably results in either increased costs to the consumer or an elimination of competition altogether.
Proponents have not come forward with any evidence that those who use ridesharing services have experienced an increased incidence of compromised safety over those using conventionally-regulated services. Incident rates vary by locale, and for this reason, it makes sense for these services to be regulated (or not) at the local level. It is also evident that proponents have not given due consideration to the extra security features inherent in the Lyft and Uber apps that are unavailable with taxi service, or the fact that, in the case of commercial taxi drivers, they have a much higher incidence of being targeted by passengers (who are obviously not subject to fingerprinting or background checks) rather than the other way around. Finally, legislation such as that passed in H.B. 509 would subject both drivers and passengers to claims of discrimination, which always have the potential to be used in reprisal.
The bottom line is that drivers for Lyft and Uber in Hillsborough County are being intentionally targeted by regulators who have been pressured by competitors – not for dangerous practices, but for not being regulated enough. And because the same drivers can operate freely in other counties in the state, how can this be seen as anything other than a violation of equal protection under the law? To voice your opinion on this issue, contact the Hillsborough County PTC at (813) 350-6878 or write to them at 4148 N. Armenia Ave., Suite A, Tampa, FL 33607.
Lauren Anthony has been a freelance writer since 1990, a Florida resident for over 15 years, and resides with her family in Tampa. Share your news tips with Lauren at: email@example.com.