NSW govt hauls Uber drivers to court

The NSW Roads and Maritime Service is hauling Uber drivers to court, with the agency issuing at least 10 court attendance notifications to drivers within the ride-sharing company's Sydney operation.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

Uber drivers in New South Wales are facing the threat of court, with the state's Roads and Maritime Services issuing court attendance notifications to drivers within the company's Sydney footprint.

The move comes as reports indicate that Uber has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of fines issued to its drivers by the country's transport authorities.

According to the ABC, 95 UberX drivers in Queensland have been issued with over AU$260,000 in fines since the company began operating in Brisbane last year.

Uber driver Debra Walsh told the ABC's 7.30 program that Uber has told drivers to continue operating despite the threat of fines, and that it would bear the cost of the fines for the time being.

In Sydney, UberX drivers have been issued with at least AU$28,500 worth of fines by the NSW Roads and Maritime Service, while as of May last year, more than AU$50,000 worth of fines had been issued to UberX drivers in Victoria.

The company currently operates in Adelaide, the Gold Coast, Perth, Brisbane, Geelong, and Melbourne. Globally, Uber claims operations in over 250 cities across 53 countries, with the company receiving similar fines in other markets.

As of December last year, the Taiwanese government had issued Uber with 30 tickets worth approximately AU$98,635 for violating its laws, while Uber drivers in the country received 33 penalties, worth around AU$63,000, according to Bloomberg.

Transport for NSW said that although Uber itself does not breach the state's Passenger Transport Act 1990, drivers for Uber's budget service, UberX, are breaking the law by transporting passengers for a fare.

"It is illegal for drivers in NSW to participate in 'ride-sharing' activities like UberX," a Transport for NSW spokesperson told ZDNet. "Any driver operating in these circumstances are potentially committing a number of offences, including driving without authority and offering a service without accreditation.

"Taxi and hire car services in NSW must be provided by an accredited operator authorised by Roads and Maritime. Authorised drivers undergo relevant criminal history and medical checks. This is to ensure the safety of customers and drivers," the spokesperson said.

Uber maintains that it is "not a transportation provider", and that it will stand by its drivers as they bear the brunt of the authorities' ire while it waits for the Australian government to develop regulations around ride-sharing services in the country.

At present, the company seems content to pick up the tab from fines issued to its drivers around Australia.

However, with the NSW government now moving to issue drivers with court attendance notices, the company will have to find another way to support its partners, as drivers themselves are required to attend court.

"We will stand by our drivers fully in whatever way we can," an Uber spokesperson told ZDNet. "We don't believe anyone should be penalised for providing safe, reliable rides in their city, and we'd encourage departments to shift their energy to establishing sensible safety-based ride-sharing regulations that are in the best interest of consumers rather than protecting the incumbent industry from competition."

Uber has made it known that it is keen to work with the government to develop a legal framework around ride-sharing operations in Australia -- an area that NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has referred to as a "grey area".

However, the company seems to have no qualms about continuing to operate its business in markets where the activity of its drivers remains illegal.

With over $1 billion that it has been afforded by backers such as Google and Goldman Sachs, the company has deep pockets upon which to draw to continue to support drivers who have been issued with infringement notices.

Uber has been accused of playing dirty by the likes of arch-rival Lyft in its push for market dominance, an assertion that seems to be supported by emails obtained under Queensland's Right to Information laws by the ABC. These suggest that Uber has been working to undermine the state's transport inspectors by blocking their mobile phones from accessing the service.

"Due to blocking by Uber, only two covert rides were undertaken [today]," Nick Marsden from the Department of Transport and Main Roads wrote in an email to colleagues last August.

Uber's response to the assertion that it has blocked phones held by the department's transport inspectors to assist in the crackdown on Uber is that the phones were blocked due to "unusual activity" linked to the accounts associated with those phones.

Uber told ZDNet that "riders may be restricted from the platform for any inappropriate activity".

The San Francisco-based ride-sharing company has not only come under fire for operating in a regulatory "grey area" in many of the markets it operates, but has also come under fire over rider safety following rape and assault charges for several of its drivers globally.

In December, a Boston-based Uber driver was charged with allegedly sexually assaulting a passenger, just two weeks after an Uber driver in India was pulled up for allegedly raping a passenger.

The company has since said that it is looking at introducing biometrics, voice recognition, and new driver screening technology in a bid to assure rider safety.

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