Reasonable Doubt: Uber brings public debate and legal issues to Vancouver

Countdown to Uber for Vancouver? Kevin Yee tackles the controversial topic of Uber and the obstacles in the way.

Social media platforms empower us as consumers. We are now finding some pretty clever ways to do things for ourselves rather than relying on the typical businesses. Finding rental accommodations is one example: look at Airbnb. Rather than turning to the hotels and hostels, we’re renting one another’s homes. However, there is pushback. The regulators, politicians, and industry competitors are up in arms about these as commercial activities that should be regulated. As I pointed out in an article last year, the resisters consider the Airbnb example to be an illegal bed and breakfast and that regulating these activities is in the public interest.

Here’s another example of this pushback against a trending social platform: Uber. Uber has been trying to crack the Vancouver market for the last few years now. Uber offers an alternative to a taxi or limo. They designed a smartphone app so that anyone can look for registered drivers to pick them up and drive them to a specified location. Uber’s app tracks drivers, sets the rate based on demand at that time, and facilitates the transactions. Uber’s popularity is gaining in cities all around the world, and taxi and limo drivers have taken notice. It’s a threat to their business. It’s also a way to get extra business on the side.

So far, Uber has not successfully launched in Vancouver. In Vancouver, limo drivers started using Uber and then, in November 2012, the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board announced that those drivers were violating the conditions of their existing licences. The board gave a public warning that those limo drivers had to charge the standard rates under the regulations. The Uber-set rates (and how they were advertised) did not comply with the regulations. The Ministry of Transportation’s position is clear: an Uber driver needs a standard licence like any taxi or limo company because they are in the business of passenger transport. Uber has argued that the company itself is just a technology business. They merely provide the app for their users.

After this public warning, Uber seemed to back off. Recenlty, reports have been surfacing that Uber is gearing up for a return with “Uber X” where customers can hire Uber drivers who use their own personal vehicles. The ministry has taken the offensive by saying it would enforce its bylaws. Ministry spokesperson Kate Trotter responded to Reasonable Doubt on the measures it might take:

If the Uber X service begins in Vancouver, drivers advertising or providing the service will be ticketed and the Passenger Transportation Registrar will send a Cease and Desist letter to Uber.
Any company or driver advertising or providing a service they’re not licensed to provide is subject to being ticketed. A ticket for $1,150 can be issued by the police, Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement officers or Passenger Transportation Inspectors at the roadside.

Obviously, the ministry is taking this very seriously. And let’s face it: it wouldn’t be hard to clamp down on Uber drivers. It’s not as though those drivers can hide—their very ability to get business requires that they be easily tracked.

According to Reasonable Doubt writer Michael McCubbin, who has appeared before the board, Uber is fundamentally incompatible with the regulatory framework in place. This is because of its flexible nature; it has fluctuating prices and an ever-changing number of vehicles in its fleet. The regulations would likely need to change drastically before Uber successfully launches. Similar to the Airbnb debate, there is a political debate here. But what might be the legal consideration or implication?

Uber may be an attractive alternative to the existing options in public transit, taxis, and limos. However, what happens if an Uber vehicle gets in an accident? Are there legal remedies for people injured? Normally, those people can start a personal injury lawsuit and sue the driver(s) at fault. If that driver is adequately insured, then that person would be personally protected from such a lawsuit. In an Uber vehicle however, driving might constitute a commercial activity that would put the driver afoul of their insurance policy. If so, that person may not have any insurance available to them. The driver, rather than the insurance company, could be personally responsible for damages suffered by others. Having appropriate insurance, from Uber or elsewhere, is definitely something to consider before you decide to make a few bucks on the side as a driver.

For now, we’ll wait and see what further steps Uber and the board will take. This might mean a consumer-driven push into the market, a clamp down on Uber services, and hearings on licence violations. This will all fuel a public debate on how we should be regulating passenger transportation.

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

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