Uber drivers in Auburn could face arrest


YELLOW LIGHT: Uber drivers should use caution in Auburn, where they could face arrest for violating the city’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance.

By Johnny Kampis | Watchdog.org

CULLMAN, Ala. — If Auburn residents are driving for Uber, as company officials claim, they risk arrest like their counterparts in Tuscaloosa.

“Yes, we’re operating in Auburn,” spokesman Taylor Bennett wrote in an email to Watchdog.org on Thursday.

However, no Auburn residents have applied recently for a vehicle-for-hire business license, meaning if anyone is driving for Uber there they’re doing so illegally, City Manager Charlie Duggan told Watchdog.

“We welcome Uber drivers as long as they follow the regulations,” he said.

Auburn’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance is similar to the one that’s caused the ridesharing service so much consternation in Tuscaloosa, lacking the requirement for a vehicle inspection but requiring background checks on drivers, adequate liability insurance and a business license.

Ridesharing services work through smartphone apps that allow customers to find the location of nearby drivers, who work as independent contractors, and summon a ride.

Unlike in Tuscaloosa, where undercover operations yielded plenty of warnings, citations and one Uber driver arrested for drug possession, Auburn police haven’t put the squeeze on Uber drivers — yet.

Duggan said he hasn’t “been made aware of” any arrests, but noted the misdemeanor charge for violating the city’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance could lead to a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.

Capt. Lorenza Dorsey, the Auburn Police Department’s media contact, didn’t return a phone call from Watchdog on Thursday.

Controversy, meanwhile, has died down in Tuscaloosa, where police officers were given the green light to start arresting Uber drivers breaking the vehicle-for-hire law last week.

DUGGAN: Says Uber drivers are welcome in Auburn if they play by the city’s rules.

There have been no reports of arrests and Uber officials have been tight-lipped on the situation. When asked if Uber still had drivers in Tuscaloosa, Bennett sent Watchdog the same reply as last week.

“Uber continues to be available in over 215 cities around the world, moving folks safely and reliably around town; at this time demand greatly exceeds supply in Tuscaloosa,” he wrote.

City spokeswoman Deidre Stalnaker and Tuscaloosa Police Department media contact Sgt. Brent Blankley couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Tuscaloosa City Councilman Kip Tyner told Watchdog it’s an issue of fairness and public safety.

“I’ve been a strong advocate to stick it to them and make them play by the rules,” he said.

Tyner said the regulations are fair, noting the city offered to waive many of the requirements in the vehicle-for-hire ordinance.

“People put a magnetic sign on their car and want to call themselves a taxi,” said the councilman of 17 years. “I wouldn’t want to ride with them.”

But Matthew Mitchell, an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argues existing regulations in most jurisdictions are too burdensome.

“This is a technology that came along after these rules were written,” he told Watchdog.

Mitchell said rather than require ridesharing companies to comply with existing taxi regulations, cities should “deregulate down to the level of Uber.”

Mark Perry, a professor of business economics and finance at the University of Michigan-Flint, argues the requirements of background checks and car inspections are unnecessary.

“Uber’s feedback system of having passengers rating drivers (and vice-versa) is the best form of consumer-driven regulation, and all that’s necessary to protect passengers,” he wrote in an email to Watchdog. “Consumers are pretty ruthless in their demand for high-quality service, and if Uber drivers aren’t providing it, those drivers won’t survive.”

Uber and rival Lyft both took a hit from the Better Business Bureau earlier this month when the consumer watchdog gave both an F rating, largely due to surge pricing during peak hours.