Uber’s growth irks local taxi drivers

Dover City Cab driver Sean Stultz. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Lifelong Dover resident Sean Stultz began working at City Cab of Delaware as a dispatcher. About six years ago he made the transition to an independent taxi operator for the company.

In the past two years, he’s seen a big drop in business. To him, that drop’s cause is Uber.

“Uber cut deep into business,” he said. “Now we have less drivers making less money and we’re working longer hours. On weekends two years ago we used to have five cars on the road. But the other night we had two. But if you open the Uber app — and believe what it tells you — it says there are 12 drivers nearby.”

Taxis and Uber are natural competitors, but Mr. Stultz says his contempt for the ride-hailing service stems from deeper concerns.

“It’s not that I don’t want competition in Dover or in Delaware,” he said. “It’s public safety that I am worried about. There’s so much at stake here.”

Mr. Stultz isn’t your average taxi driver with a passing distaste for Uber. He’s an active member of a group that calls itself the “World Wide Anti-Uber Society.” He alleges that the standards Uber is held to in Delaware in comparison to the ones he’s held to as a taxi driver aren’t rigorous enough.

Among his main concerns are the procedures Uber uses to validate new drivers. These concerns recently inspired him and other members of his advocacy group to conduct what they called a “sting.”

“I was working with a guy in Wisconsin who’d submitted a false registration and false insurance with a legitimate person who could pass a background check,” Mr. Stultz said. “I contacted him and was able to do the same thing here in Delaware.”

With the help of his associate in Wisconsin he was able to alter a copy of Delaware registration papers and submit them to Uber along with fake insurance, he said.

“He put information on the registration for a vehicle that doesn’t exist and added a fake tag number,” he said. “The fake insurance had my name and address on it and I just sent pictures of it through messenger – no paperwork or actual documents.”

The application was accepted and Mr. Stultz was established as an Uber driver with fake paperwork.

“I feel like we proved, pretty easily, that a $70 billion company will let anybody drive for them without proper checks or verifications,” he said. “It seems like they’re not checking the tag numbers, the VIN numbers or the insurance policy. There’s no way you could take a car with fake papers and get it registered as a taxi in Delaware.”

Mr. Stultz said with the assistance of a consenting user of the app he tested his ability to be hailed through Uber and was successful, although he did not complete a pickup and drop-off because he didn’t want to commit fraud.

If you ask Craig Ewer, Uber’s spokesman for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, Mr. Stultz already has committed fraud.

“We had our team look into the case, and essentially it’s clear to us in this case that the driver did commit deliberate fraud by uploading forged documents,” said Mr. Ewer. “He never completed any trips on the Uber platform and he has been banned from using it in the future.”

Uber’s safety features

Mr. Ewer said the process for on-boarding new Uber drivers includes having submitted documents reviewed by agents who are trained to reject paperwork that appears fraudulent. That’s a process that is under a constant state of continued improvement and a search for more technical methods of reducing fraud, he said. He goes on to say that Uber’s process for maintaining safety and accountability is something that occurs repeatedly, rather than just once.

“I will say that fraud can take place, committing deliberate fraud is certainly possible,” he said. “In this case it was not picked up by the agents that we had reviewing the documents, but we do think that having real-time data, including all of the safety checks that take place on every trip creates a safer experience for riders.”

Mr. Ewer pointed out that to become an Uber driver, an applicant is required to submit his/her Social Security number, insurance information and driver’s license. That information is fed into a background check performed by a nationally accredited firm.

“They’re checking county, state and federal court records as well as referencing lists used to flag suspected terrorists and sex offenders,” he said. “They’re also checking against motor vehicle histories.”

Even a background check is just a representation of one point in time, he added. Mr. Ewer feels that safety is core to Uber’s technology and because they make it an ongoing process, it brings a better service to their end users.

“We have that constant feedback,” he said. “After every single ride, a rider gets to rate the driver and provide feedback and the driver gets to rate the rider.

“So, while a background check can tell you something about that person at that moment, you need to have technology providing a safety check every time someone takes a ride.”

The feature wherein drivers are prompted to take a photos of themselves when they first log on is another check that Mr. Ewer feels makes drivers and riders safer.

“Techs match that picture with the one we have on file for their account, so that protects against additional fraud and protects drivers’ accounts from being compromised,” he said. “There is also some accountability when you know that you’re on the map. While you’re on a trip, you have the ability to send ride information in real time to people in your contacts. They’ll receive a link that will open on their phone so they can see who you are riding with and where exactly you are at that moment.”

Dover resident and Uber driver Danny Rivera started driving in August after being laid off from his job at Winner Ford. He started driving for Uber part-time, but is now nearing full-time hours and making nearly double what he did at his last job, he said. He feels that the approval process and the continued amount of scrutiny that he’s under as a driver for the platform is plenty rigorous.

“I supplied my registration, a profile, picture of myself and my vehicle, license, plate number and insurance,” he said. “They’ve done background checks on me, too. On top of that, though, I have to constantly wash my vehicle and make sure passengers are comfortable and safe — otherwise I’ll get a bad rating. If I fall below a 4.5 out of 5, Uber will suspend my account. Any standard that the state isn’t holding us to, the individual passengers are. I’d say let the riders be the judge.”

Not only does Mr. Rivera think Uber’s service is just as safe, if not more safe, than taxis, he says the convenience of quickly hailing a vehicle is actually a boost for public safety and economic activity.

“I’ve actually had a lot of positive feedback from police officers, they don’t like to give out DUIs,” he said. “They actually tell people at frat parties or at the bars downtown who’ve had too much to drink to Uber their way home — it happens all the time and I feel like I’m actually saving some people’s lives. It’s good for local business too, people need to get around. The bars, hotels and restaurants all love me.”

Mr. Rivera is one of a reported 500 active drivers now operating in the state. Mr. Ewer also supplied Uber data that showed there are now 25,000 active riders in Delaware who experience an average wait time of under five minutes for a ride once it’s hailed. The data also noted that visitors from 38 countries have used Uber in Delaware.

State regulations  

Before legislation was passed in July, Uber was operating in the state under a memorandum of understanding (MOU). John Sisson, the CEO of DART, the operating arm of the Delaware Department of Transportation, says the new legislation requires Uber to uphold certain standards for their drivers while giving the state the right to perform random audits.

“There’s now legislation that requires Uber, Lyft or any other TNC (transportation network carrier) to follow insurance and background check requirements to have an operator in the state,” he said. “They have to follow the requirements of the law, but we are also able to do a sample test of about 50 Uber drivers every quarter to make sure they have been keeping up on their background checks, insurance and that all their drivers’ licenses are legitimate and in good standing.”

Mr. Sisson said that they’ve already performed two to three random audits, each time checking about 50 drivers, and have found them in complete compliance every time.

To some degree, he shares Mr. Stultz’s lament about taxis and limos being pinched by Uber’s service.

“That’s part of the legislation that we’re still looking at,” he said. “What, if anything, can or should be done to put taxis and limos on a more equal playing field with Uber? Taxi or limo drivers are getting their vehicles inspected twice per year and individually they are paying a fee to operate as opposed to working under the umbrella of an agency. Individually there are more fees for taxis than there are for Uber drivers. Our responsibilities are to analyze what the differences are, and make some recommendations to the general assembly going forward.”

As far as the state is concerned, Uber drivers don’t need to carry a special business license or permit to operate in the state, but Dover has it’s own policy.

“Our only regulation of Uber is that we require that they (Uber drivers) get a city business license,” said Ann Marie Townshend, director of Planning and Community Development for the City of Dover. “We license them the same as taxicabs. In order to get a license, we make sure they are licensed through DMV as well.”

Although Mr. Sisson says that Uber’s presence in the state should be monitored and policy should be adjusted accordingly, he doesn’t seem to share Mr. Stultz’s sense of urgency.

“We don’t have any big concerns right now, but the concept is still very new,” he said. “We have the authority to make more rules if we see fit and we’ll need to pay close attention as it continues to develop. Uber is out in Pittsburgh already testing their driver-less cars, so what will things look like in 5 or 10 years? I’m not sure yet.”

The important point that Mr. Sisson tries to drive home — that’s as true with hailing a taxi as it is Ubering — is:

“Customers always have to be careful too,” he said. “You’re hailing someone on a mobile device. Uber will give you a photo of the car, name of the driver and their license plate number. Make sure you’re getting into the right car and doing all the right things. There is some responsibility on the users of the system as well.”

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