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Posted at 09:58 AM ET, 01/13/2012

Uber car impounded, driver ticketed in city sting


Bust portends ongoing trouble for Uber’s “convenient, classy rides.” (Bill O'Leary - WASHINGTON POST)
UPDATED 6:05 P.M.

The D.C. Taxicab Commission is wasting no time showing Uber, the hybrid taxi-limousine service, who’s boss.

An Uber car was impounded and its driver was ticketed this morning as part of a sting operation, said the commission chairman, Ron Linton. The action comes two days after Linton said in a commission meeting that he considered the service to be operating illegally.

Linton played a key role in the morning sting, hailing a car using Uber’s smartphone app then directing it to the Mayflower Hotel, where city hack inspectors were waiting. The driver, identified as Virginia resident Ridha Ben-Amara, was ticketed for four violations — not holding a chauffeur license, driving an unlicensed vehicle, not having proof of insurance and charging an improper fare. The violations carry combined fines of $1,650.

“It kind of serves as a message to the others that are doing this, they’re not going to be immune,” Linton said. Ben-Amara, 48, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The first alleged violation was “incorrect hauling” — because the driver and his car are licensed in Virginia, he is allowed to pick up a District passenger only if he is going to take the rider to Virginia; Linton’s trip was completely within the District.

Uber does not directly own cars or employ drivers; customers uses its smartphone-based system to summon cars owned by limousine companies that have contracts with Uber.

The “improper fare” violation, Linton said, is based on a city law that says limousine trips must have a fare set in advance; Uber’s system uses time-and-distance metering, and Linton said Ben-Amara refused to cite him a fare before the trip began.

“What they’re trying to do is be both a taxi and a limousine,” Linton said. “Under the way the law is written, it just can’t be done.”

The driver, Linton said, will have an opportunity to appeal his tickets, which carry hefty fines.

Notably, the bust does not implicate Uber itself, but instead the limousine companies it contracts with and their drivers. Ongoing busts could threaten those contracts. Linton said Friday that he’s seeking advice on taking direct action against Uber from the District’s attorney general.

To address the issues, it appears Uber may have to do a better job coordinating cars and drivers with riders and their destinations — i.e., sending a D.C.-licensed car for D.C. -only trips. Second, the company might need to seek a change in city law or at least a new interpretation of city law allowing for their limos to use a meter system.

UPDATE, 4:50 P.M.: Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, addressed the sting by noting that Linton or other commission officials have not responded to the company’s request for more informations on which rules and regulations the service is violating.

”We haven’t gotten any specifics about anything we’re doing wrong,” Kalanick said. That includes the practice of using a metered fare for limousine rides, which he maintains is not prohibited: “We can’t find any statute anywhere that says anything about how limo companies can charge for rides.”

Uber will continue operating, he said.

Kalanick said he has been in touch with Ben-Amara, who is “surprised and really shocked about the situation,” and pledged to pay for his fines and any other costs incurred by the sting. The offer stands, he said, if other Uber drivers are cited.

”We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure these guys aren’t prohibited from making a living,” Kalanick said.

The question now appears to be whether Uber can do anything to clear up its regulatory landscape.

The D.C. Council member with oversight of transportation affairs, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), acknowledged that Uber appears to be operating in a “regulatory no man’s land,” but she said she did not know enough about the particulars of the situation to comment.

She encouraged Uber, as well as its supporters and detractors, to testify at a Jan. 30 hearing on a taxi reform bill.

UPDATE, 6:05 P.M.: The post has been updated to identify the driver and clarify the charges he faces.

By  |  09:58 AM ET, 01/13/2012

 
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