By John Cooper Lawton
Uber, an app that allows people to quickly find drivers for hire near them, was seen as revolutionary and welcomed by many, but Uber now faces many legal disputes from users and city governments.
Uber made its Oxford debut on Aug. 29. The company made the expansion to 21 other college towns with the hopes of “providing safe and affordable transportation options to an additional 600,000 students this year,” according to Uber’s blog.
The app opposes Oxford’s new regulations on vehicles for hire. Jay Hughes, Ward 1 alderman, led a group that revised these regulations.
“It’s about treating people fairly and equally,” Hughes said. “A vehicle for hire is a vehicle that transports another person for an exchange of money or something of value. You can call it ride-sharing, but it’s still a vehicle for hire.”
According to the city’s ordinance, a driver of a vehicle for hire in Oxford must have a commercial “Class D” driver’s license and a commercial insurance plan, go through the city’s background check and be approved by the mayor and board of aldermen. Uber bypasses these regulations and uses its own criteria.
Kenny Cooper, the owner of Dixie Taxi, said he cannot support Uber because of its refusal to adhere to the city’s ordinances. Cooper said he believes Uber is a vehicle for hire service just like taxi services and should be treated the same.
“As it stands, Uber is breaking the city’s current taxi ordinance that the taxi industry and city spent a great deal of time and effort to settle upon over the summer,” Cooper said in an email. “Their operation is unlawful.”
At the Oct. 7 board of aldermen meeting, a hearing was held, per Uber’s request, to allow Uber to explain why it should not be treated as other taxi services. At the conclusion of the hearing, the board unanimously agreed Uber cars are vehicles for hire and will continue to receive fines up to $1,000.
“Mr. Barbour agreed that the drivers using Uber apps are actually vehicles for hire but would get the board a list of changes he would like to see made to apply specifically to their drivers,” Hughes said in an email to HottyToddy.com.
Hughes said many of these regulations were set up with the safety of Oxford citizens in mind. Uber drivers in cities across the nation have been accused with allegations of assault, sexual assault and kidnapping.
“I’m proud of Uber for doing checks, but there are standards,” Hughes said. “As a consumer, I still have the right to be safe.”
Uber continues to develop its operation in Oxford despite the city’s opposition. Taylor Bennett, an Uber representative, said the company will cover any and all fines their drivers receive.
“We continue to fully stand behind our driver partners and will cover any financial or legal costs associated with these unfair citations,” Bennett said in an email. “The fact remains, our best-in-class insurance, extensive background checks and unprecedented accountability and transparency built into the app make Uber the safest, most reliable ride on the road.”
Hughes related Uber’s stance to pay any fines their drivers receive for driving a vehicle for hire illegally to the music website Napster.
Napster fought allegations that it was an illegal operation by claiming it was merely a resource for sharing files and not a resource for downloading music illegally. However, it was determined to be a site that enabled criminal conduct.
Since the fines will no longer be a deterrent for many drivers, Hughes said he believes Uber is enabling their drivers to conduct illegal activities by covering their fines.
The demand for Uber drivers in Oxford remains high. Uber has been advertising for drivers in local newspapers and has asked some of their Memphis drivers to take rides in Oxford.
Walter Aldrich answered the company’s call to come down from Memphis. He said he has no worries about Oxford’s regulations.
“Uber saying they will cover any fines is a mute point since the municipalities will lose any lawsuit with them,” Aldrich said.
Aldrich also said the municipalities are slow to “get with the times.”
“There’s an app that lets you hire a handyman,” Aldrich said. “There’s no difference between this and that. That handyman may not be a contractor, but the homeowner hires him just the same.”
Hughes rebutted this point by referencing JetSmarter, an app similar to Uber. This app allows people to connect with private jets nearby.
“The pilot still has to be licensed,” Hughes said.
Hughes may have fought Uber, but he said he still thinks the platform is a great idea.
“I hope Uber will get drivers to submit to Oxford’s ordinances,” Hughes said.