GRINDING GEARS: Regulating ride hailing is not a bad idea

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire.

I need not explain to you how unusual and downright inconvenient it is for rivers to go around catching fire, but nevertheless, there it is. A large body of water, a substance not normally known for its inflammability, was riotously ablaze.

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If the good people of Cleveland were surprised by their fiery river, they shouldn’t have been. Starting in 1868, the Cuyahoga caught on fire a staggering 13 times. You know the old saying: set my river on fire once, shame on you; set my river on fire 13 times, why on earth is a river catching on fire I feel like I’m taking crazy pills over here!

Three years later, the U.S. government passed the Clean Water Act of 1972, which was aimed at curbing water pollution. And, you know, not having rivers embarrassingly catch on fire. The Cuyahoga never burned again.

The point of all the above is that, while democracy is important, sometimes people aren’t capable of seeing potential problems that are right in front of their face, and you can’t rely on companies to do the right thing. Sometimes a little government red tape can be necessary, especially if you’d like to have a nice glass of tap water without your face melting off.

Which brings us neatly to the subject of ride hailing, something that is foremost in the minds of North Shore residents. Particularly during the damp winter season, when walking and cycling can be wet and unpleasant, the idea of being able to summon an Uber or Lyft to get around is very appealing. Why can’t we have ‘em? Seattle does. Los Angeles too.

The public has Opinions about this sort of thing. In fact, when I recently wrote an article that pointed out Uber’s track record of being the sort of company who would absolutely set fire to a river if it was profitable, I received all sorts of mail suggesting I was somehow in cahoots with the taxi companies. This sort of thing happens all the time. Argue that Tesla’s finances are a little shaky and fans of Elon Musk will suggest you’re taking payoffs from Big Oil. Point out that the Camaro has a bit of a cramped back seat, suddenly you’re in the pocket of Henry Ford.

So, at the risk of being accused of swimming in vats of caviar provided by cabbies, let me once again climb up on my rickety old soapbox and suggest that not rushing into things is hardly the problem companies and politicians would have you believe. Ride hailing isn’t problematic in and of itself, but a little regulation of it is no bad thing.

Specifically, I’d like to speak to what’s required to be a ride-hailing employee, or “ridesharing partner” as Uber euphemistically calls them in an effort to avoid paying benefits. The current legislation proposed by the NDP requires drivers to have a Class 4 license, which involves more training than a Class 5, as well as medical and background checks. Additional insurance is also required.

You don’t need a commercial driving license to drive for Uber in most other markets, including Toronto. In fact, Toronto ensured ride hailing didn’t get a more favourable status than conventional taxi companies by reducing the level of training required for cabbies as well. A mandatory 17-day safety course was scrapped.

That’s dumb. Actually, it’s not just dumb, it’s dangerous. Toronto has quite literally decided to reduce public protections in the name of making getting around easier.

Haste has consequences, and in this case those consequences came home in the tragic death of a 28-year-old Toronto man earlier this year. In March, Nick Cameron and his girlfriend summoned an Uber to take them to the airport. The driver was unfamiliar with the route, and was using GPS to navigate. The phone fell off the dashboard, and he pulled over on the narrow highway shoulder to retrieve it. When he pulled into traffic, he somehow didn’t see a BMW approaching at highway speeds. Cameron, seated on the rear right of the car, suffered a broken neck and brain damage. He never woke up.

Do you trust every taxi cab you get into? I don’t. We’ve all had a ride where the driver went too fast, or took chances that seemed risky.

However, at least there’s some level of training there, and certainly we shouldn’t be pushing for there to be less of it. Yes, a Class 4 license represents a barrier to signing up for Uber, but not a major one. One local driving school charges $499 for a comprehensive course, which seems reasonable.

A bigger barrier to ride hailing, perhaps, is how insurance will work. Here at least, I agree with the ride-hailing companies. The ICBC monopoly on insurance isn’t just problematic for the likes of Uber and Lyft, the lack of competition isn’t great for the rest of us.

But let’s leave that particular can of worms aside for a moment, and focus on the drivers themselves. There are only two ways in which it is acceptable for ride-hailing drivers to work without a commercial license.

The first would be the creation of a specific ridesharing endorsement to your driver’s license. If you want to tow something over 4,600 kilograms gross vehicle weight, you need a bit more training and testing. Perhaps additional classroom and practical training combined with some testing would ensure an acceptable minimum level of skill for ridesharing drivers.

The second is to refocus the question, “Why should ridesharing drivers require more training than the rest of us?” It’s a fair question, especially when framed as, “Do the current commercial licensing requirements of ride-sharing legislation point out that the average driver is undertrained?” The answer is, of course, a resounding yes.

For now, requiring a commercial license is at least a good initial protection for the public. We could certainly use more ways to get around, especially during these dark, damp days. However, let’s not set fire to the Capilano in our hurry to get there.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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