40 Sydney UberX drivers issued suspension notices

After October 1, the vehicles of 40 suspended UberX drivers will be deemed unregistered and uninsured if found on NSW roads, following a crack down from the state government.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

40 Uber drivers have been issued suspension notices in New South Wales, as the state government moves in on illegal ride-sharing services.

On Monday, a NSW Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) spokesman said that taxi and hire car services must have authorised and accredited operators, as well as a licensed and insured vehicle.

"Thousands of dollars in fines have already been issued to drivers offering illegal ride-sharing activities and compliance actions will continue," he said. "If drivers continue to offer illegal ride-sharing services, they will continue to risk registration suspensions and fines."

The 40 UberX suspensions will take effect from midnight on Wednesday for three months.

If a suspended vehicle is found on the road after October 1, the vehicle will be deemed unregistered and uninsured, with penalties of AU$637 for each offence, increasing to around AU$2,200 if heard in court, the RMS spokesman added.

Uber says it is waiting for the NSW government to sensibly regulate the industry.

"We are shocked that the Roads and Maritime Services did not appear to show these drivers any due process and we are reviewing the legal options to reverse this decision," Uber said in a statement on Monday.

The RMS has been hot on Uber's heels for a while, issuing court attendance notifications to Uber's Sydney drivers earlier this year.

In June, NSW opposition leader Luke Foley called on the state government to "embrace the digital age", announcing his plans to introduce a private member's Bill to regulate ride-sharing services, such as those offered by Uber.

A month later, the state government launched a task force which, according to the government, will work with customers, the taxi industry, hire car companies, and other stakeholders to examine the market's sustainability and competition, the impact of emerging technologies, the importance of customer safety, and the burden of current taxi regulations.

In late August, the taskforce, now known as the Point to Point Transport Taskforce, called for changes to be made to the current regulatory framework to reduce red tape and level the playing field for the taxi industry and other point to point transport services.

"Point to point transport providers have already begun to adapt, and government regulation must follow," the taskforce's discussion paper [PDF] said.

Since mid-July 2015 the taskforce has met with hundreds of people in NSW representing more than 140 organisations, including Uber.

Professor Gary Sturgess, who heads the taskforce, said the feedback so far has been that the existing regulatory framework is not able to adequately deal with all of the recent changes.

"The taskforce is reviewing what can be done to create a level playing field for the industry so it can respond better to change and ensure customers' needs are met," he said.

The taskforce said the existing regulatory framework is "difficult to enforce", and therefore not as effective as it could be, concluding that it is consequently causing unnecessary burden for the taxi industry, including high costs; ultimately causing higher fares for customers, and making it difficult for them to compete with hire cars and other point to point transport providers.

According to the Australian Taxi Industry Association (ATIA), in 2014, 227 million taxi trips were made Australia-wide, with 97 million of those in NSW. The ATIA also found the average taxi licence price in the state was AU$367,000, second in cost only to Queensland at AU$519,000. The average taxi fair in Australia in 2014 was AU$23.97.

Feedback from the discussion paper closed on Friday, and the taskforce has tabled the report of its findings to be given to the NSW government in October.

Uber has caught the attention of state governments around the country. In Western Australia, the state's Department of Transport released its still-open green paper in July which centred on regulating the transport industry and ensuring consumer safety, with the state's minister for transport Dean Nalder hoping to "simplify this with a single piece of legislation".

"On-demand transport is a critical part of the wider transport system in Western Australia, and ensuring it has the flexibility to meet the challenges of a growing community is a high priority," the minister said at the time.

Originally, the state's transport department threatened to prosecute Uber drivers for illegally operating a taxi in Perth, since softening its stance to start the regulatory discussion.

In July, the Queensland government said it would be reviewing its taxi strategy later in the year, and has not ruled out the co-existence of taxis and Uber services on the state's roads.

In the meantime, though, a police crackdown on Uber will continue in Queensland, with drivers being issued on the spot fines, which according to reports had totalled AU$1.7 million in the state alone in the past year, as a result of 1,536 infringements recorded in June.

Uber has been at the centre of a prolonged debate about regulatory changes to the industry since it entered the Australian market in 2012, with the Taxi Council Queensland denouncing it as a "foreign bully" over the latest marketing technique of cutting fares to bolster participation.

Despite a cease-and-desist order having been placed upon the company's Queensland operations in May, Uber said it has been accessed by more than 1 million Australians as of July this year.

Uber found itself in court earlier this month with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), arguing during the first directions of Uber B.V v The Commissioner of Taxation of the Commonwealth of Australia that UberX drivers do not fall within the same definition as taxi and limousine drivers, and therefore should be required to pay the Good and Services Tax (GST).

The ATO defined taxi travel as "travel that involves transporting passengers for fares", and in May demanded drivers of the ride-hailing app sign up for an Australian Business Number and pay GST by August 1. Although Uber told its drivers to abide by the ATO directive, the startup filed documents to the Federal Court a day before the August 1 deadline to contest.

Uber's Australia and New Zealand general manager David Rohrsheim believes the ATO has singled out UberX partners for "special treatment".

"Uber drivers are not providing taxi services. Full stop," Rohrsheim told ABC RN Breakfast in mid-August.

With AAP

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