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D.C. Council okays bill to legalize Lyft, Sidecar, uberX-type services in the District

A taxi caravan of hundreds drove slowly and honked car horns in June as they held up traffic on Constitution Avenue and refusing to take fares from 11 a.m. to noon in protest of Uber, which, the DC Taxi Operators Association says, has an unfair advantage over regular cabs since they don’€™t follow the same rules nor pay the same fees. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Lyft, Sidecar, uberX and similar services are now closer to being legal in the District.

The D.C. Council voted to approve new rules governing these services, which will require certain levels of insurance coverage and background checks for drivers who work with the companies. As part of that framework, the “Vehicle for Hire Innovation Amendment Act of 2014,” creates a new class for these services. This bill was introduced last year by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Council member David Grosso (I-At Large).

“We have established the regulations necessary to ensure public safety and consumer protection; however, we also want these services to operate in the District without artificial obstacles in their path,” added Cheh.

The council vote was 12 to 1 with Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). The measure will now be sent to Mayor Vincent Gray for his signature.

The companies have largely supported the legislation, which has been criticized by D.C. taxi drivers and companies as unfair because individuals who drive for uberX, Lyft and Sidecar don’t have to meet the same licensing requirements as regular cab drivers. Hundreds of drivers staged a protest in front of the Wilson Building Tuesday morning to protest the council’s action. Ron Linton, chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission also opposed the legislation raising concerns about whether it did enough to ensure passenger safety.

Among the provisions in the bill: Drivers must be 21 years old, and must successfully pass a criminal background check, sex offender database check, and driving history check.

The measure would require the app-based services to provide primary insurance coverage “of at least $1 million per occurrence for accidents” from the time a driver accepts a call until the passenger exits the car. At other times — such as when the driver is waiting to be booked — the driver or the service would be required to provide coverage. Many services have already moved to expand insurance coverage after gaps were revealed following the death of a six-year-old San Francisco girl who was struck and killed by an Uber driver. Uber this year began offering primary insurance coverage from the time a driver accepts a call to when the passenger is dropped off.

The companies must also register with the D.C. Taxicab Commission, which will be tasked with enforcing the regulations. Vehicles used by services such as uberX, Lyft and Sidecar would also be required to undergo yearly inspections.

“The DC bill is not a model — it’s a step backwards,” said Dave Sutton, spokesman for the ‘Who’s Driving You?’ campaign, sponsored by the Rockville-based Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. He said his association continues to have concerns about insurance coverage and whether passengers will be protected if there’s an accident.

In addition, he said, district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles have questioned whether the background checks done by the companies are thorough.

In an e-mail statement, Uber said: “With this legislation, DC has become a trailblazer in the transportation industry by embracing innovation, supporting consumer choice and empowering small business owners.”

The measure wasn’t all about uberX, Lyft and Sidecar though. The bill loosened restrictions on residency requirements for D.C. taxi drivers, who may now reside anywhere within D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It also gives taxis that are summoned via an app an ability to adjust their prices in a way similar to the “surge pricing” model used by some of the app-based services.