Lizzie Marvelly: Riding roughshod over us

If Uber can't abide by New Zealand's rules, it shouldn't be allowed to play the game.
This week the Government announced that Uber could be banned from New Zealand if it continues to flout safety laws. Photo / AP
This week the Government announced that Uber could be banned from New Zealand if it continues to flout safety laws. Photo / AP

As the saying goes - change is the only constant. It sounds like a modern truism, but the phrase was coined by Greek philosopher Heraclitus, circa 500 BC. In Heraclitus' day, when catching a ride probably involved sending a servant to fetch one's chariot, the concept of Uber may have been enough to earn a prophetic dreamer an appointment with a leech-wielding physician.

Today, however, in our innovation-obsessed world, the weirder the idea, the better.

Uber has been making headlines since its launch in 2010. Its reputation as an innovator is so ubiquitous that the term "uberfication" is now used generally to describe market disruption.

Almost everyone I know seems to be using Uber. Everyone except me, that is.

I'm told I'm lagging behind in the dark ages. I've taken a few Uber rides with friends, but I haven't yet made the leap. I've always had some concerns about the concept of getting into a stranger's private car, and frankly, especially after this week, I can't see myself downloading the app anytime soon.

To give credit where it's due, Uber has created a brilliant system. For the unacquainted, the app gives you much more information than the taxi companies do, mapping the progress of your driver, providing ratings for drivers and passengers alike and cutting out the confusion of hard-to-describe pick-up locations with a simple tap on a map.

There's no need for cash and you can request an estimation of the cost of your fare before you've even stepped inside the car. You're unlikely to be stung with a $100 fare from the airport to the city, and if you are, you'll at least be forewarned. It's not hard to see why the new kid on the block has turned the old-fashioned taxi industry on its head.

And yet, there are still archaic specimens like me who find themselves standing in the rain having convoluted conversations about obscure street names with taxi dispatchers at 1am.

Why? For me, it's about safety.

This week the Government announced that Uber could be banned from New Zealand if it continues to flout safety laws. Uber's stoush with the authorities began in April, when it removed the requirement for its drivers to obtain a passenger or "P" endorsement - a licence all taxi drivers are required to carry. The official certification requires police and medical checks and the completion of a course. As it should.

There are still archaic specimens like me who find themselves standing in the rain having convoluted conversations about obscure street names with taxi dispatchers at 1am.

Uber argues that the process is too tedious and expensive. Instead, a spokesperson said it "would be willing" to negotiate an alternative procedure with the Government. Perhaps if the Government decided to make good its threat to ban Uber, the company would suddenly find itself much more "willing" to prioritise the safety of its customers.

Given the nature of such a transport service, when something goes wrong, the consequences can be frightening. Earlier this year Salient magazine published claims that six women had been sexual harassed by Wellington Uber drivers, including one driver who was reportedly removed from Uber's system after an alleged inappropriate interaction with a 15-year-old girl.

No sexual assault complaints have been reported publicly here in New Zealand, but internationally that's not the case. Between May 2015 and May 2016, 32 official sexual assault complaints were lodged with police against London Uber drivers. One driver was sentenced to 18 months in prison for molesting a young woman. Uber drivers in Hawaii, Los Angeles, Boston, Delhi, and Seattle, among others, have been accused or convicted of sexual assault or rape.

When Uber is refusing to comply with New Zealand law, and instead opting to use its own less-stringent security checks, how can passengers expect to feel safe?

One of the most bizarre responses to the news of Uber's illegal registration practices came from the Government's support partner David Seymour, who seemed to think Transport Minister Simon Bridges' threat to ban Uber represents a lack of bravery in the face of intimidation.

"The only way that a courageous minister passionate about technology like Simon Bridges could reverse his position like this, that I can imagine, is that someone must have got to him," Seymour said, after asserting that banning Uber over safety concerns would make New Zealand the "laughing stock of the world". Perhaps he wasn't aware that Uber has already been banned in other countries.

What Seymour missed was that the discussion, at its heart, is not about innovation or technology.

No one is saying that innovative new companies shouldn't be allowed to operate here, provided they abide by the law and provide a safe and reliable service to New Zealanders. If Uber can't abide by the rules put in place to protect New Zealanders, it shouldn't be allowed to play the game.

Until Uber can provide us with a compelling argument as to why Kiwi consumers should accept a lower standard of safety, I'm with the minister.

- NZ Herald

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