Uber, the online hailing service that has shaken up the taxi industry throughout the world, has run foul of the industry's regulators in several countries, so New Zealand's modern image will not have been damaged too much by Transport Minister Simon Bridges' talk of banning Uber here. He is incensed the company no longer requires drivers offering rides to hold a "P" (passenger) endorsement on their New Zealand driving licence. Uber complains that drivers face fees of $2000 and have to wait up to three months for clearance. Its own checks cost $20 and take six days.
But these do not involve a police check, medical records, a "fit and proper person" inspection and regular checks that the driver is able to provide a transport service. Uber's screening uses Ministry of Justice records and the NZ Transport Agency's driver licence records.
The minister has called this a mockery of the law and said a ban was one of the Government's options if Uber did not comply.
It is a brave regulator who would claim official licensing paperwork is superior to the constant customer assessments that are commonly available for internet-based services. If the service is making available to users the impressions, observations and experiences of previous passengers, these would be a far more searching and reliable measure of safety than the routine checks of departmental registers. Police and medical records will not contain more than a fraction of those who might not be suitable, and will bar some who have outgrown youthful crimes.
The internet is making many activities safer, and Uber is no exception. Its app provides regular checks on where the vehicle is and the route it is taking. Its lower costs and online payment system make it attractive to many, but not to everybody. Some people do not like the idea of riding in a car that feels like what it is: a stranger's personal or family vehicle. There will continue to be a market for well-presented commercial taxis in which the passenger can preserve the detachment of a paying customer.
Traditional taxi operators insist Uber drivers should be subject to the same licensing requirements they face. The Transport Minister seems to agree with them. But his only concern should be public safety.
He needs to ask whether licensing procedures devised in a pre-digital age are still warranted when passengers carry personal tracking transmitters and mobile movie cameras and, perhaps more important, every driver knows it. It should not be taking three months and thousands of dollars, or even hundred of dollars, for people to become an Uber driver.
If conventional taxi firms feel this is required for public safety, they can continue to require P endorsements - and promote the fact they offer that level of safety, for what it is worth. Uber is equally confident its screening procedure is sufficient for "the safety outcomes the travelling public want and expect". It wants to help the Government find a more flexible licensing framework, one more in tune with the future.