Keeping Safety First for New Jersey’s Ridesharing Passengers

New Jerseyans who depend on Uber, Lyft, and similar alternative taxi services to get around are one signature away from safer rides, now that a somewhat controversial bill has made it to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.

And while it’s not clear if he will sign A-3695/S-2179 — his office did not return a request for comment — more than two-thirds of the states and the District of Columbia already have adopted similar legislation, as has Newark. And Michigan's governor also has a ridesharing bill on his desk.

Spokesmen for Uber and Lyft, the two largest transportation network companies (TNCs) operating in the country, expressed support for the bill and hope Christie will sign it.

“The passage of a permanent framework for ridesharing increases modern transportation options, economic opportunity, and public safety across the state of New Jersey," said Adrian Durbin, a Lyft spokesman. "We thank the state Senate and Assembly for approving this critical legislation, and the thousands of members of the Lyft community in New Jersey who made their support for these commonsense rules heard.”

Uber spokesman Craig Ewer commented, "We thank the bill sponsors, as well as the leadership in both chambers, for securing the passage of comprehensive ridesharing legislation. Their efforts will further Uber’s mission of improving mobility and extending economic opportunity across New Jersey."

Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), one of the sponsors of the legislation, said lawmakers "worked with Uber and Lyft and law enforcement officials to create a statewide standard for ensuring the safety and protection of passengers, while maintaining the flexibility that has helped these ridesharing services to become so popular."

The measure would create a set of statewide standards for TNCs. Among the major provisions would be criminal background checks for drivers; driving record checks with disqualification for more than three moving violations, suspended or revoked license, and a drunk or reckless driving offense; and a zero-tolerance policy for using drugs or alcohol while driving for the company.

New Jersey's proposed regulations would have the companies submit their methods for conducting background checks to the state attorney general. If they do not submit their plans or if the AG's office does not approve them, it would be up to the State Police to conduct the checks.

Uber and Lyft have fought efforts to check their driver’s fingerprint in other venues, with both pulling out of Austin after city voters approved a program that includes fingerprinting. New Jersey's proposed rules do not require fingerprint checks, although they could if the attorney general does not approve of the TNC’s systems.

There have been cases in New Jersey and across the country in which drivers have been accused of kidnapping, sexual assault, and even attempted murder.

“The rapid growth in the use of ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft has created concerns about safety regulations and some confusion about who is responsible for setting and enforcing standards to protect consumers and safeguard customers,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), another of the bill's sponsor. “This is a new business model that requires a new set of protections that promote safety and provide uniform, statewide standards for the companies, their drivers and the passengers.”

While the services have become wildly popular, some riders welcome stricter regulations.

"In my experience with Uber, I found my driver to be punctual, friendly and pleasant," said Cara Noonan, a Hunterdon County woman who used Uber while living in Camden County. "However, I believe that one driver does not necessarily represent the entire pool of drivers … I think requiring insurance and background checks for all drivers are necessary in order to ensure the safety of the passengers."

That's the main purpose of the legislation, which is the product of "long and thoughtful bipartisan deliberation," said Assemblyman Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen), lead sponsor in the lower house.

“The demand for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft has made it clear that residents of New Jersey want access to what these companies have to offer,” he said. "This legislation balances respect for free enterprise, appreciation for innovation and, most importantly, the duty of lawmakers in our state to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the people of New Jersey … No longer will there be confusion about the responsibilities of companies or the rights of their customers. By working to establish consequences for bad actors and bolster public confidence in these services, New Jersey is taking action to strengthen an industry that is both a source of on-demand transportation for passengers and a source of income for men and women working hard to make ends meet.

An estimated 20,000 New Jerseyans have worked or are working part- or full-time as TNC drivers, according to the bill's sponsors. The services have also helped riders and the economy: Earlier this month, Lyft released a study showing that in 2016 Lyft saved its New Jersey riders one million hours of travel time, which is valued at over $18 million, and generated more than $19.3 million in extra spending across the state.

Other key provisions of the legislation would:

Require TNCs to pay a $25,000 annual fee to the state Motor Vehicle Commission for a permit to operate in the state;

Mandate that a TNC or its driver or a combination of both provide auto insurance coverage, including at least $1.5 million in coverage for uninsured or underinsured drivers;

Prevent a TNC from discriminating against riders on the basis of race, color, national origin, religious affiliation, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or destination;

Require disclosure to riders of the method by which fares are calculated;

Authorize both the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission and the Division of Consumer Affairs to inspect company records to ensure compliance with the law.

The New Jersey Association for Justice, a group of attorneys, was concerned that riders might not be covered for medical costs. “We are very pleased that appropriate insurance coverage has been provided to help those who are injured while riding in these vehicles,” said its President Michael G. Donahue III, Esq.

Both Uber and Lyft say their drivers will not have to pay the costs of background checks or insurance.

The measure is supported by such diverse organizations as the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, and Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities.

On Monday, the Senate passed the bill 29-5 and the Assembly voted 69-7 to send the bill to Christie.

Original Article