Illegal Uber drivers hit with $93,000 fines as company continues to ignore licensing laws
Uber drivers have been stung with tens of thousands of dollars in fines, nearly a year after the ride-sharing company announced it would flout laws around passenger endorsement certificates.
Last April Uber, which has about 3000 drivers in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch, declared its New Zealand drivers no longer needed passenger, or P, endorsements, which are issued after drivers' medical, criminal, behavioural and driving histories are vetted.
Since then, non-compliant Uber drivers have been hit with 185 infringement notices, and fines totalling about $93,000.
The NZ Transport Agency says Uber – a private hire company that connects drivers with passengers via a smartphone app – is far less rigorous in vetting its drivers than the agency is.
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One Wellington Uber driver, who did not want to be named, said the issue of P endorsements was not even mentioned at an information session held by the company.
When he flagged it up, he was told by a representative that Uber did not require the endorsements. The driver got one anyway.
From his own experience as an Uber passenger, he said most other drivers did not have their endorsements.
His main concern was for passenger safety, he said. Uber conducted only a simple criminal check, and no medical vetting. "You don't want drivers on the road who can't see."
Transport Minister Simon Bridges said the Government supported innovation, but basic safety requirements around P endorsements were non-negotiable.
"Drivers and potential drivers need to be under no illusions: driving without a P endorsement is unlawful."
NZTA was prosecuting individual drivers, and exploring options for prosecuting Uber as a company, he said.
He hoped legislation would be passed by the middle of the year to "level the playing field and allow all operators, including taxis and Uber, to compete on an even footing".
Uber Drivers Association chairman Ben Wilson said he was sceptical that a law change would make any difference to how Uber operated. The multinational was "slippery", and treated its drivers as a commodity under a rigid, secretive and mechanical corporate structure.
He said it had two classes of driver, compliant and non-compliant, both of which were supported by the company.
NZTA access and use national operations manager Kate Styles said the agency was issuing warning letters to prospective and working drivers "to ensure they understand the legal requirements of providing passenger services, and the consequences of operating illegally, including potential impacts on vehicle financing and insurance".
Uber spokesman Caspar Nixon said the company backed the Government's "public commitment to look at fast-tracking regulatory change to reduce compliance costs and simplify requirements to make ride-sharing accessible for New Zealanders who want to share rides in their personal cars".
"We look forward to working with the Ministry of Transport and NZTA to put partners through an accessible revamped endorsement as soon as possible," Nixon said.
"In the meantime, we'll continue providing our safe, fast and affordable screening process that delivers the safety outcomes the travelling public want and expect."
ACTIONS TAKEN BY NZTA SINCE APRIL 2016:
4107 warning letters sent to potential Uber drivers
139 formal warnings issued to drivers
185 infringement notices issued
29 drivers ordered off the road/forbidden to drive
GETTING A 'P' ENDORSEMENT
* Any driver who takes passengers for hire must legally have a passenger endorsement certificate.
* Drivers must undergo a "fit and proper person check", which is repeated every year by NZTA.
* The check looks at things such as traffic offending, previous complaints, serious behavioural issues, and always includes a police check for criminal offending, including overseas convictions.
WHAT UBER DOESN'T CHECK
NZTA says there is some overlap between Ministry of Justice checks used by Uber and NZTA's "fit and proper person" vetting. However, the ministry checks do not provide information on the following factors, investigated by police for NZTA's vetting process:
* Charges laid by police but not yet heard in court
* History of behavioural problems and complaints made to police
* Past transport service related complaints
* Persistent failure to pay fines