Uber safety dispute shows balance between personal choice, regulations

By Dug Begley
Houston Chronicle.

The “creepo” who agreed to pick up Mel Smith about a month ago from a Midtown bar probably never got a chance to put her location into the Uber app.

“I always look at the picture,” Smith said of the photo that pops up when she requests a ride via Uber, which connects drivers with passengers looking for a lift.

Smith canceled the ride quickly enough that she didn’t have to pay. She waited a few minutes, opened the app and requested a ride again. This time Smith got a driver more to her liking — a woman — and made it safely to her Washington Avenue apartment.

Like thousands of others who hop into cars with Uber’s “driver partners” every day around the country, Smith was entering an emerging realm characterized not just by changing technology, but by challenges to traditional notions of the role of government in regulating consumer services like paid rides. Surging demand is outpacing enforcement as questions arise about the adequacy of company oversight, and Uber clashes with regulators in city after city.

With the new, smartphone-based services, drivers and passengers said, the relationship between the person behind the wheel and the person paying for the trip is unique: “It’s just you and them,” one driver said, asking not to be identified. “That’s a big level of trust.”

Accommodating the model of Uber and competitors such as Lyft is proving to be a tumultuous process for state and local governments, experts say.

“It is a disruptive technology and we are in a period in which we are trying to examine how these companies should be regulated,” said Janice Griffith, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

The companies’ disputes with officials in many cities and states — including Houston, San Antonio and Texas — focus on how best to regulate a new way of providing paid rides. For example, the companies have pressed for their type of background check, which relies on Social Security information, while some cities demand a fingerprint-based system.

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