I had my first Uber experience last weekend, and I have to say it was remarkably pleasant. It doesn’t change the fact that I think Uber as a company is a bit shady, and the fact that their response to Kansas requiring background checks and insurance was to take their service and leave the state doesn’t make them less shady.
The basics of the Kansas law are that drivers must have a state background check done, and that the insurance coverage while they are driving must be higher than the base $1,000,000 coverage Uber currently gives drivers. Each state sets the limits for insurance coverage for commercial drivers, and while I couldn’t find an easy breakdown of every state’s minimums, you can read more about why this required here. Kansas says this isn’t about Uber, but about general public safety and liability. Uber says the limits are too onerous and decided not to operate at all in the state.
It’s an interesting debate, because people tend to fall on one side or the other depending on their existing worldview. I’ve seen comments on this defending Uber, saying Kansas is playing politics and purposely making it difficult for Uber to do business in the state. I’ve also seen comments about how this is for general public safety, and that it’s a way to protect the state as well as riders against liability. Personally, despite my extremely positive Uber experience over the weekend, I tend to side with Kansas (this may be the first and last time I ever type THAT sentence!) Granted, I am not familiar with the specifics of what a Kansas background check requires, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask that someone who is driving for extended periods and taking some responsibility for other people at least have a clean driving record. Likewise, unless the new Kansas insurance limits are completely insane, I think its within the state’s rights to ask for more coverage. It will cost the state as well as opposing insurance companies money if Uber drivers are under insured, and frankly $1,000,000 isn’t that much if you’re looking to cover property damage and/or medical bills. Remember too that statistically someone driving for a living has more likelihood of an accident, simply because their volume of time driving is increased.
And Uber’s response pretty well sums up my issue with Uber. They seem to feel that because they exist in a vague legal loophole that standards of basic safety and insurance don’t apply to them. Drivers are “independent contractors”, and Uber is just “connecting people”, so why should they be treated like a taxi company? The problem is that when you strip away the legal fiction of independent contractors and “an app that just connects people”, what you get is a transportation company. It’s one that uses apps and smartphones to cut their overhead dramatically, but they’re basically a 21st century car service. My Uber driver didn’t do me a favor this weekend because we’re buddies connected by an app, I hired him to drive me and get me from point A to point B safely, and I paid him the agreed-upon rate for his service. Uber’s objections get a bit silly when you drill them down to just being a car service; it would be akin to them complaining that they couldn’t hire drivers with unregistered cars or suspended licenses. And the Kansas laws apply to all services, not just Uber: you don’t hear about private car services throwing up their hands and screaming “You want me to KNOW MY DRIVERS AREN’T CRIMINALS? What kind of fascist society is this?” and shutting down. In my view, when you look at the battle between Uber and Kansas, Uber is trying to make this into a big dramatic story because the reality is far more prosaic and less flattering to Uber: they just don’t want to spend the money to be compliant.