By Evelyn Andrews
“It was hard to get a ride with Uber when they first came to Athens, but now it’s easier and cheaper than a taxi normally,” said Sydney Browning, who has ridden with the service several times.
Affordability and the easiness of getting a ride with Uber is often cited as a reason people choose the service over traditional taxis, but Uber’s lack of government oversight and background checks has led to some people to question the safeness of using them.
“I did not know that Uber doesn’t have some requirements that taxi drivers have and I do feel a little more worried getting a ride with them now,” Browning, a student at the University of Georgia, said.
Uber, a ride-sharing service, has been expanding across the globe since 2012 and debuted in Athens in August 2014. Uber, a part of the sharing economy such as Airbnb and bike rental services, operates in 55 countries and over 200 cities as of December 2014.
Uber has not been immune to mishaps, including being banned from India after allegations of rape and surge pricing during the hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. Several taxi cab companies worldwide have sued Uber on the basis that they do not follow regulations. Athens Uber operations also have not been immune to these types of controversies, but no lawsuits have been filed.
“The real question should be is, ‘is it safe?’” said Ted Ledall, a dispatcher for United Taxi Cab in Athens, Georgia. “To be an Uber driver, there are no qualifications.”
Several taxi cab owners and drivers from Atlanta sued the ride-sharing service in September 2014, claiming Uber is operating a taxi service without a license. Many Athens taxi cab owners and drivers agree with their decision and are supporting them, Ledall said.
“We support them 110 percent,” he said.
But taxi companies in Athens are not planning their own lawsuit. Instead, they are relying on Mayor Nancy Denson.
“Everything is on the mayor’s table rights now,” Ledall said.
He said Mayor Denson should require all Uber drivers in Athens to adhere to the same regulation that taxi companies are required to follow. Athens ordinances require taxi cab drivers to receive a background check through the police department and to have a valid driver’s license with no points acquired in order to be issued a taxi license drivers are required to have.
“We check our drivers so much, there is no felonies, nothing in their background,” Ledall said.
However, one in five taxi drivers in Athens have accumulated a number of traffic or other violations within the last 10 years, according to The Red & Black.
No ordinances exist in Athens-Clarke County or state laws in Georgia that stipulate requirements for Uber, but city officials, according to The Red & Black, are reviewing ordinances that could be passed.
Hasan Ahmed, an Athens Uber driver, said the company does have stringent requirements for drivers. They do an internal background check, making sure the drivers have a valid license with a clean record.
“I don’t think you could make the argument that Uber is any less safe than taxis,” Ahmed said.
But some law makers argue that Uber still needs official government regulations, including Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) who is trying to pass legislation requiring Uber drivers to pass a government background check.
The government also requires taxi drivers to pass a drug test in order to obtain a license. Uber does not make drivers pass these tests, which Browning said is worrying.
Uber drivers are also required to have a car that is less than 10 years old, Ahmed said. Many people have said they feel safer riding with an Uber driver for that reason. Athens’ taxis are often in bad condition, older and poorly maintained, Browning said.
“I have ridden in a few taxis that do not even working gauges for speed and gas before,” she said.
Ledall deflected that argument by arguing that taxis still have more regulation than Uber. Additionally, Uber price gauges riders and charges them exorbitant prices for vomiting in the car, neither of which taxis do, Ledall said.
However, taxis in Athens do not have meters that measure the distant driven and assign a price for the riders. This makes the price taxis drivers tell riders seem arbitrary, Browning said.
No taxi drivers have harassed Ahmed, but he has been stopped by police several times, he said. However, he does not fault the officers, but rather the lack of awareness about the laws guiding Uber.
“Everything is so new and no one really knows what the rules are so sometimes the police just get confused,” Ahmed said.
According to an Athens-Clarke County police report, an Uber driver was stopped by a police officer on Jan. 9 and told to finish the ride and not take any more riders because Uber is not a licensed taxi.
Athens Uber operations has acquired several more drivers since beginning in the city in 2014 and will remain a competitive force against taxis, Ahmed said.
“I think everyone has noticed that they are many more Uber drivers,” Ahmed said.