If you happened to be an innocent bystander who somehow got caught in the crossfire of a terrorist attack, would you think that you’d have to pay four times the normal cost of a car ride to safety?
Unfortunately, that’s what happened last December to some Uber passengers when faced with needing a quick escape and some distance from the 16-hour siege at Sydney, Australia’s Lindt Chocolate Cafe. The event triggered the controversial “surge-pricing” that Uber and other ride-booking services (lesser players Lyft and Sidecar included) also use here in the U.S.
Even some of the app-based companies fans say it’s just semantics for price gouging. “Neverforget, neveragain,” read the hashtags uber-celeb Jessica Seinfeld used in Instagramming a receipt for a whopping $415 Uber fare during a recent New York snowstorm. And with so many lawmakers across the nation also having their own pro-constituent reasons for wanting to crack down on the industry, you’d almost think the very idea of using your smartphone to call for a car were evil incarnate.
Here are some things you should know before booking one of those cars:
• Your driver may not have been pre-screened. There have been numerous reports in the mainstream media of ride-booking drivers arrested for allegedly raping or assaulting passengers. Efforts to subject the “newbies” to the same rigorous background checks as taxi and limousine drivers, however, have been fought by all three services.
“Background screening is a public safety issue,” says Gary Buffo, president of the National Limousine Association (www.limo.org). “Competition is a good thing, but everyone needs to play by the same rules.”
Uber, for instance, has trumpeted its “industry-leading (vetting) standards.” But that claim took a hit last December when prosecutors in California alleged, as part of a consumer protection lawsuit against the company, that its drivers weren’t being fingerprinted—thus making its criminal checks “completely worthless.”
• Good luck suing if injured. Some ride-booking services allow drivers to carry personal, rather than commercial, insurance. (They do, after all, use their own cars.) But at a recent City Council hearing in Buffalo, New York, Kristina Baldwin, of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, testified that allowing this made for a “serious insurance gap.”
• Surge pricing promotes sticker shock. Uber did reimburse Sydney riders after getting skewered by the media, but New Year’s revelers in New York City learned a lesson in supply and demand and did not have the same luck. “The most expensive eight minutes of my life,” the New York Daily News quoted one angry passenger.