They gather in a “war room” to track the patchwork of state and local laws regulating ridesharing upstarts with names such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. They scour Twitter and Facebook for complaints about “surge pricing” and irresponsible drivers, and encourage people to submit their grievances in an incidents report on a Web site.
The fight between taxicab companies and the burgeoning wave of ridesharing companies in Washington and elsewhere is not new, but it is taking on a heightened dimension with the help of two local businesses: Melwood Global, the Bethesda-based public relations firm, and Interactive Strategies, a design and online marketing agency whose offices are in Dupont. The firms are working together to represent the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association — a Rockville trade association representing 1,100 taxicab companies — in mounting its campaign against ridesharing service providers.
The association has been tracking the rise of ridesharing for the past two years, and four months ago began accelerating its efforts to draw attention to what it sees as safety lapses in the ridesharing industry, said Dave Sutton of Melwood Global, a spokesman for the campaign.
Melwood helped design and frame the “Who’s Driving You?” initiative as a public safety issue, arguing that ridesharing services do not have stringent enough background checks for drivers and lack the proper insurance polices to cover accidents.
“We have really ramped up our efforts,” Sutton said.
A major part of the campaign is creating and running the Web site, whosdrivingyou.org, which compiles passenger complaints from Twitter, Facebook and Yelp airing concerns ranging from high prices (“I still can’t believe @uber charged $156 for 8 miles.”) to questionable behavior from some drivers (“Driver tried to stalk me ... He had my real number. I didn’t realize and he won’t stop calling.”)
The site also tracks pending legislation in states and cities that are considering rules regulating ridesharing companies, including California, Colorado and Seattle. Sutton is part of a four-person team at Melwood who is working full time on the initiative, which he said is the only one of its kind that is nationwide in focus. Melwood took on the work as a one-year project, but it may extend beyond the year, Sutton said. Melwood first began working with the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association five years ago, answering a request for proposal the trade group put out for PR firms, said Melwood co-founder John Boit. One of the current campaign’s goals is to have ridesharing companies comply with the same regulations as taxicab companies, Boit said.
“A taxicab company has to meet a certain threshold of regulations,” he said. “Those regulations cost money. Of course the [taxicab] industry is concerned that other companies are allowed to come in and not play by any of the rules that the taxi industry has had to abide by for decades.”
The ridesharing industry is pushing back, accusing the taxicab association of resorting to public safety arguments when it is really just trying to stifle competition, Sidecar chief executive Sunil Paul said.
“It’s just outright efforts by the taxi lobby to use their influence to suppress innovation and competition,” he said. “It’s the classic playbook for an incumbent industry, claiming it’s for safety reasons or about consumer fairness but the real agenda is, ‘We’ve already got the protection of government for a monopoly and we don’t want to give that up.’”
Sidecar has $1 million commercial liability insurance per incident and has a third party do background checks on drivers. It recently began doing more comprehensive motor vehicle record checks for drivers, and starting April 1 will add collision coverage up to $50,000 that will cover drivers regardless of what level of personal auto insurance they have.
Uber has also hit back, coming out with its own “I’m Driving You” campaign earlier this month on its Web site, compiling personal testimonials from drivers about why they chose to become Uber drivers. The company also announced in February that it was expanding its background checks for drivers, who must now undergo federal and county background checks in addition to existing multi-state criminal background checks done by an outside screening company Hirease.
And as of March 14, Uber expanded its insurance policy to cover incidents that may occur during the entire time an Uber driver is logged into the system — not just when they have a passenger in the car. It also added collision insurance that covers driver liability for bodily injury up to $50,000 per person, and up to $25,000 for property damage, if a driver’s personal insurance does not cover it. In October, Uber hired outside lobbyists for the first time, turning to boutique lobby shop Franklin Square Group, but a company spokeswoman did not elaborate on specific issues the company is pursuing at the federal level.