Christchurch Uber drivers warned not to break the law

By Gabrielle Stuart

Because the Uber drivers work as self-employed contractors, they would individually be responsible for paying fines, not the company. Photo / Dean Purcell
Because the Uber drivers work as self-employed contractors, they would individually be responsible for paying fines, not the company. Photo / Dean Purcell

Almost 700 Christchurch drivers have been given warnings for illegally driving or planning to drive for Uber.

The taxi service company has been locked in a dispute with the New Zealand Transport Agency after it ignored the rules requiring its drivers to get a passenger endorsement licence.

The NZTA has sent warning letters to 693 Christchurch drivers, saying they could face court action, or up to $10,000 in fines, if they carried passengers without getting a license.

If they ignore the warning and keep driving, the NZTA can also issue them a prohibition notice banning them from driving.

Since April, Uber has allowed drivers without a license to ignore the laws and drive passengers anyway.

But because the drivers work as self-employed contractors, they would individually be responsible for paying fines, not the company.

Tickets were handed out to 129 drivers during a police crackdown on "small passenger service vehicles", including both taxis and Uber cars, in Auckland this month. Eighteen of the drivers caught in the sting were forbidden to operate and three cars were impounded.

Christchurch police have not said if they are planning any similar stings here, but police spokesman Ross Henderson said the Police Commercial Vehicle Investigation Unit was working with NZTA to ensure taxi and Uber drivers were "operating within the law".

Although the service has only been running in Christchurch since March, local drivers make up more than a third of the 1934 Uber drivers across the country the NZTA believes are working illegally.

Uber argues that it is a "ride sharing service" not a taxi service, so should not be subject to the same regulations.

Uber spokesman Caspar Nixon said ride-sharing was not currently regulated in New Zealand, so Uber had its own "fast and affordable screening process".

"We have a screening process that we implemented when we launched in Christchurch, which includes background and driving history checks, but we are currently working with the Government on how we can make it better, because the P Endorsement isn't a great process to work with," he said.

The P endorsement costs $161.70 for a year or $458.90 for five years, and it can take months as drivers need to complete a course and get a medical certificate.

But NZTA has said Uber drivers are operating illegally without the licence.

"This is illegal, as the law requires anyone carrying passengers for hire or reward to hold a passenger endorsement," group manager for access and use Celia Patrick said.

She said Uber's screening process did not cover things the P endorsement checked, like complaints made to police about the person, or charges laid that had not been to court, past transport service complaints or overseas criminal convictions.

"As a safety regulator, we have no interest in standing in the way of innovation, but we have a responsibility to ensure that people carrying passengers for a living have been properly vetted and understand their responsibilities under the law," she said.

Uber trip took wrong turn

When Jordan Reddish took an Uber ride from a party in Aranui to his home in Burwood, he thought it felt like a long trip - but did not realise how long until days later.

What should have been a 5km, 10-minute trip instead took almost half an hour, as the Uber driver looped 17km around Aranui and Linwood before delivering him home.

What should have been a 10 minute trip home, the driver took Jordan Reddish on an half hour detour. Photos / Christchurch Star
What should have been a 10 minute trip home, the driver took Jordan Reddish on an half hour detour. Photos / Christchurch Star

The trip cost almost $60, instead of what would have been about $20 for a direct trip.

Although the Ara student thought the trip was unusually long, he didn't realise how far they had detoured until he got the receipt and trip outline from Uber several days later.

He believed the driver had deliberately ripped him off.

"He must have thought this guy's a bit drunk, let's make some money off him," he said.

He had not asked if the driver had a passenger licence, but said the man had acted very professional at the time.

He planned to be more cautious in the future, but said it had not put him off using the service.

"I have Ubered five or six times and every other time has be fine. I would definitely use it again, I'd just be wary."

When he contacted Uber to complain, he said they handled the complaint fast and refunded him $37.68 to cover the extra he had paid for the detour.

Uber spokesman Caspar Nixon would not say if there had been consequences for the driver, except to say that he would have had his fee for the ride reduced after the complaint was substantiated.

He would not say if the driver had a passenger endorsement licence or if the man was driving illegally, saying he could not access that information without the driver's permission.

But he said Uber took "inefficient route" complaints seriously.

He said the cases were sometimes a "one-off", where a driver had made a mistake or had a legitimate reason to detour, but if it happened regularly the driver would be flagged.

That worked through the Uber star rating system. If a driver's rating dropped below a certain point, they would be called by Uber to discuss the problem and they could be "deactivated", he said.

- Christchurch Star

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