D.C. taxicab drivers are not supposed to hail street fares while operating for Uber. – Evelyn Hockstein /For The Washington Post

In the pouring rain on Tuesday afternoon, a cab with a “Taxi for Hire” light on pulled up to the curb, responding to an outstretched hand. After the passenger entered the vehicle, the driver asked the standard question. “Where are you headed?” he said. First and M Street Northeast, I replied.

The cabbie drove to the red light, suddenly looked at his phone and said, “Oh, I have a call. Uber. I can’t take you.” He sheepishly pointed to the app on his phone, as if helpless to cancel or not accept the almighty car service’s beckoning. 

I told him I didn’t care. He got angry, dared me to take down his information and let me know in no uncertain terms that I could “call whoever I wanted.” We exchanged unpleasantries and after a few choice words, I hopped out, irritated.  I didn’t even bother to take his information. 

But there was a lesson to be learned: There is a large loophole in how taxicabs that choose to use Uber, the most popular of the new digital dispatch companies that are now doing business in the District,  are regulated. Nothing can prevent drivers from double dipping — or scanning both the street and their iPhones at the same time for fares. It’s something that regular cab drivers who sign up with Uber are technically not allowed to do. But it’s nearly impossible to enforce. While what he did — allowing me in, then refusing to give me a ride — is illegal on its own, the practice of cabbies working for Uber while still on regular duty itself is not. It’s just frowned upon.

“That’s definitely not cool. We very clearly make sure that they understand that … when they are not using Uber as their primary way to get e-hailed, they shouldn’t have the application on,” Zuhairah Washington, general manager of Uber DC said Wednesday. “We are very clear with our partners that they need to use our technology when they’re available to take Uber requests. They should not be street hailing and e-hailing at the same time.”

But unless the customer is going to take on the burden of taking down the info of every cab they ride in, and file labor intensive and marginally fruitful complaints with the D.C. Taxicab Commission, riders will be forced to just deal with it when cabbies decide mid-ride to take a fare from their phone. A situation that District of Columbia Taxicab Commission (DCTC) understands is unfair, and partially due to Uber’s status as a company operating outside of the normal rules.

“Where there is gray, frankly, it comes from the fact that Uber is not registered with the Taxicab Commission,” one DCTC official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “On the street level, I’m sure it’s very difficult to work through the practical matters of this. It’s certainly one of the things that we as a commission would like to clarify so that at least there is black and white. If we’re going to say that this is illegal, then let us enforce against it.”

That means that riders basically have no recourse other than to report drivers to Uber, in hopes that the complaint will affect the drivers’ overall rating (even though the riders aren’t technically Uber customers at that moment). Or customers can bite the bullet because the system offers little to no help, as those who run it admit.

“It can be difficult, because you ultimately are trying to get a ride at that moment. And okay, you might issue the complaint. … In that case the complainant would be notified, a court date’s then set for you to come testify about what happened. That could be two months since it happened,” the official said. “Now, you’ll get a refund of whatever the fare. And again, will you have the satisfaction of saying, ‘Ooh, I won’? I understand it’s difficult for a passenger to feel that there is a responsiveness. You basically want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I want somebody to come right now and make this guy do what he’s supposed to do.’ Practically, I don’t know if that can happen.”

Even though city officials record complaints of cabbies failing to provide service, the lack of specific information actually helps rogue drivers.  Between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2013, DCTC received 261 complaints for refusal to haul, according to the agency. In two calendar years, there were an average of just under a complaint every three days about getting refused service, no matter the reason.  But the official said that records don’t always detail what the incident may have been about.  “I don’t know how granular that information is,” he said. Meaning, realistically, nobody reports anything. Odds that I’m sure many cabbies will take versus actually getting written up.

I’ve been a supporter of Uber in this space before. I still am. But it’s obvious that there needs to be more regulation that helps the average customer, including those not using their service. There’s no reason that anyone should get kicked out of one cab for an Uber fare in the bush. It’s something that the company agrees with.

“We want all partners to follow the rules and regulation. There’s no benefit that we gain from folks asking for destinations and subsequently kicking people out of the car. That doesn’t do us any good,” Washington said. “I’m glad that we now know to be more cognizant of this, quite frankly.”