I get it. San Antonio’s transit system leaves much to be desired. We don’t exactly have a state-of-the-art bus or rail system, and even if we did, we are so spread out as a city that either of those would still rely heavily on walking to stations. Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) seem almost tailor-made for this city full of young people with little expendable income and a tendency to binge drink.
Over the past several days, I have read commentary and news articles on all major and alternative news sources in this city. The overwhelming consensus is that the TNCs must be allowed to operate because they are easier, cleaner, nicer, more modern, cheaper, and safer with regard to their ability to reduce drunk driving. The crowd has spoken and spoken quite clearly. The people want TNCs and they want them now and forever. Who cares about licensing, fees, background checks, insurance, or the inevitable failure of traditional taxi services? Let the free market decide and let the chips fall where they may.
In this rush to condemn our city council for “outdated thinking” and outright “cronyism,” I feel we may have lost sight of a few of the real concerns here that come about when so-called “rideshare” services come to town. Let me just say that the term “rideshare” implies something very different from what TNCs are in the business of providing – which is why I choose not to engage in equivocation by using that term. While column after column cart out one straw man after another, nobody seems to be talking about the drivers of these services, their relationship with their insurance companies, and their relationship with their respective TNCs.
Recently a high-profile case in California put the TNC model to the test when a driver who was “on call” ran through a cross walk and killed a 6-year-old girl. The family of the girl reported seeing the glow of a mobile device on the driver’s face just before the accident. Uber argued that its insurance has no responsibility in the case because its insurance only covers the times when a driver is on their way to pick up a fare or when the passenger is actually in the vehicle. The driver in this case had a personal insurance policy on the car, but the insurer argued otherwise. Since the driver was “on call” and driving around an area likely to bring in customers, he was clearly using the car commercially and his insurance policy was voided.
Let’s take a minute to examine the sorts of risks these drivers are taking. In order to drive for Uber or Lyft, you must show proof that your car is insured. This is all well and good, except for the fact that just about every single insurance policy that you or I or anybody else with a personal use vehicle has does not cover commercial use of the vehicle. Now Uber would have us believe that the insurance they provide for their drivers covers any gaps that may come up, but the case of the 6-year-old girl in the cross walk illustrates just how huge the gaps can really be. I realize we have a new technology and a new business model, but it appears the real innovation is a company that is making billions by convincing young people to assume incredible amounts of risk for the sake of a few bucks.
It’s safe to assume that every Uber or Lyft driver in this city would lose their insurance policy the second their provider found out they were driving for a TNC. Many insurance companies want nothing to do with it. Hybrid personal-commercial insurance policies have not been introduced into the market yet. They stand to lose millions even if they successfully argue that their policy does not cover the accident. I’m even willing to bet those insurance companies would argue that accepting a contract with a TNC automatically voids their policies, presumably putting countless unknowing uninsured drivers on the road. Whatever you do, if you see one of those pink mustaches on the road, keep your distance.
Again, I recognize the need for options, but I don’t get a fuzzy feeling inside knowing I’m saving a few bucks on a ride home from the bar by aiding in the exploitation of naive college kids trying to earn a few extra bucks. Uber and Lyft rely on drivers who will hide their commercial driving from their insurance companies, and that’s where they fail the smell test.
All of that doesn’t even begin to approach the issue of what would happen if our taxis were unable to compete and tourists who don’t have a smart phone no longer have a way to get from the airport to downtown.
Let’s stop pretending City Council is packed with either greedy politicians looking for campaign dollars from the “Big Taxi” or old-fashioned Luddites who have to call their grandson every other day to show them how to use the remote control. City Council members have real issues to consider, and this is just one step in the process.
*Featured/top image: A Lyft driver picks up a fellow “rideshare” or Transportation Network Company (TNC) supporter after the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.