Florida legislators have worked for four years to create a statewide legal framework for allowing rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to compete with traditional taxicabs. Yet they are addressing just two of the three major public safety issues at play. If the state pre-empts local governments from regulating rideshare companies, it should at least create a framework that better protects consumers than bills that have passed the House and are poised to be considered by the full Senate.
Rideshare services have challenged attempts by counties to regulate them as taxis, asserting that their phone-based hailing system makes them different from the old business model of the regulated market for taxicabs. In reality, the two are more similar than they are different, making money by using the public roadways to carry paying passengers.
But a county-by-county approach is not ideal, and ridesharing should operate across the state in a uniform legal environment. That predictability would be good for business, and it would give consumers an expectation of a certain service level. That would make for a healthier and more competitive market.
The House unanimously passed a bill (HB 221) this week that fills a critical void by requiring that rideshare operators carry insurance (at levels higher than now required of taxis). Drivers would be subjected to background checks, though those searches would fall short of a fingerprint-based process now required of the taxi industry in some jurisdictions that law enforcement says is more accurate and up-to-date. A final version of the bill should strengthen the background checks.
The bill also says nothing about vehicle inspections. In Hillsborough County, local rules require these inspections of taxis to ensure the vehicles are safe enough not to endanger their passengers or others on the road.
In Tallahassee, the insurance provision marks a significant breakthrough. But the background checks are too weak. The industry has a self-interest in not damaging its own brand. And there's no reason to ignore vehicle inspections. It's not too much to ask that brakes, taillights, tires and seat belts all be in good working order. This is the cheapest and least onerous of the three main safety provisions to address. If it's vital enough to impose on taxicabs, why not the rideshare industry?
Neither bill requires rideshare companies to obtain a business license to operate, a huge concession that only skews the playing field against the taxicab industry. Both bills also forbid local government from imposing any licenses, fees or restrictions on their own. What business in Florida operates without a basic license?
The House and Senate bills do more than accommodate a new industry. They give preference to rideshare at the expense of their competitors and public safety. In Hillsborough County alone, the rideshare industry, as part of an agreement to end litigation and enter the market, paid $375,000 in fees to the county. How can the Legislature now turn around and claim this industry should not pay a penny or even obtain a license to compete?
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, voted to send the bill out of the Rules Committee on Thursday, but not before raising concerns that the enforcement measures under the bill were weak and relied virtually on self-policing by rideshare operators. That is one of many deficiencies the Senate needs to fix and then send a more rigorous rideshare bill back to the House.