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UberTT: Driving between the lines

Published: 
Thursday, January 18, 2018

UberTT celebrated its first anniversary in this country on Tuesday.

However, its future is uncertain as senior officials of the Ministry of Works and Transport (MOWT) confirmed they are continuing to operate illegally.

Although several attempts to reach regional representatives for Uber proved futile, ministry officials said the main issue continued to reside with local law enforcement as the company is flouting the laws of the land.

Pressed to say how UberTT had been able to enter the market and establish a growing service during the past 12 months, the MOWT official defended the ministry as she stated, “I would not want to say that we allowed them to come in, I am not aware of that.

“To my knowledge, the issue of course surrounds how we treat public transportation in T&T.”

Falling under the ambit of the MOWT, public transport in T&T is offered via the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) along with the hire-car taxi system, for which there are clearly articulated regulations to be followed.

The official stressed, “I am not aware that this is how UberTT operates. UberTT is not operating within those parameters, which are the legal parameters we have in T&T.”

Asked to say which agency or authority UberTT was required to report to, the official answered, “It does not fit in under the MOWT’s ambit.”

The US-based on-demand taxi service which operates in 633 cities worldwide, signalled its intention to establish itself in T&T, in October 2016.

It enables customers to request private drivers through internet applications for iPhone and Android devices.

Shortly after launching in January 2017, the operation encountered its first hurdle after the MOWT pointed out that private-hire taxis were not legal. However, the service continued to operate as law enforcement officials failed to crack-down on individuals registered as UberTT drivers.

UberTT takes on for hire private individuals with vehicles, who are dispatched from nearest the location of the customer making a request through the app.

UberTT masquerading as PH-taxi service

Indicating UberTT’s operations were akin to that of a “PH” car, the MOWT official explained, “In T&T, we have vehicles plying themselves for hire that are not under the ambit which governs registered taxi-drivers.

“It’s not that we give permission for them to operate. They choose to operate but there are legal systems which are supposed to be activated when these drivers are stopped by the police and other law enforcement officials, so I imagine it is the same way with UberTT.”

Acknowledging there was a public demand for the service, the official said it was now up to law-abiding citizens to make the choice to stay within the remit of the law or knowingly step outside.

She sought to impress upon users of the service that the MOWT remained unaware of what type of insurances the UberTT outfit provided—both for the driver and customer.

Users urged to identify risks

As with any service, there are risks involved and the MOWT is urging UberTT to educate themselves about those associated with this.

The official speculated, “If you are a risk-adverse person, you will take a registered taxi. If you are risk-tolerant, you might take something other than a taxi.”

She urged, “As a citizen of T&T, you should seek at all times to obey the laws of the land.” 

“When you go outside of that, you have to ask yourself what am I exposing myself to and based on the risks involved, you would have to make a decision which people sometimes don’t fully understand.”

Revealing that the MOWT’s legal department was still awaiting information pertaining to UberTT’s outfit, the official said, “All that information has not been provided, to date, but the ministry has not changed its position since the start of the operation.”

Another senior MOWT official echoed, “It should be clear that the ministry has not endorsed this and the bottom line remains that it is very much still illegal. Our laws have not changed or been amended to accommodate that.”

Ministry calls for caution

To visitors coming to T&T for Carnival and locals wanting to avoid drinking and driving, the MOWT official said, “We always caution people to take the ultimate safety precautions and especially at this time of the year.”

She continued, “Stay within the parameters of the law.”

Although drivers are required to provide a police certificate of good character when they are applying, this appears to be the only security check individuals are required to undergo before being added to UberTT’s pay-roll.

While there have been mixed reviews emerging in the public domain from users of the service during the last year, officials said they were still in the dark as to the Articles of Incorporation governing UberTT.

Claiming company representatives had been informed of the MOWT’s operating standards during a meeting early last year, officials said they were not left in doubt as to what was required.

The official said for definitive action to be taken, “You have to have vehicle operators willing to come forth and the users of the service also willing to come forth.”

She said there was no particular agency or arm of law enforcement which could actively seek out and rein-in UberTT drivers and users.

About Uber

Since Uber’s 2009 start-up, it has dodged taxi regulations in a number of countries based on its argument that it is an online service provider and not a taxi-cab company.

Prior to commencing operations in T&T last year, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan said the company followed a pattern in that it entered a country, went to work to establish its name, grew the brand by hiring drivers, quietly withdrawing and continuing operations via the internet.

At the time, he said, “There is no Uber registered in Trinidad that you can go to and get information from.”

This was confirmed as a visit to the local office at Ana Street, Woodbrook failed to unearth any information.

The lone employee indicated regional representatives had to be contacted before any information could be released to the media; a scenario confirmed by the MOWT.

Mixed reviews from drivers and users

While some users described the service as reasonably priced, reliable and safe, there were some who criticised the drivers for being unprofessional while a few others voiced security concerns.

A local celebrity who requested a pick-up in Port-of-Spain was pleasantly surprised when a driver arrived soon after her call.

While the journey to her home in Maraval was uneventful, the woman was horrified to later learn the driver had posted her name and address on Facebook as he boasted of her being one of his fares for the night.

Meanwhile, a well-known attorney who availed herself of the service refused to complete the transaction after the driver arrived with a male friend in tow.

The above accounts vary from that of a southerner who was elated to learn the driver was a friend who was operating part-time in order to supplement his monthly income.

The Gasparillo resident said, “It was cost effective and quick. I got picked up at my door and went straight to my destination. I could track our movements on my phone. The driver was also cordial and he made sure I was comfortable.”

A 29-year-old Caroni man who signed on as a driver reported having to produce a valid police certificate of character.

However, he said beyond this, there were no security or safety checks conducted into his background.

Asked about salary payments, he said UberTT received 25 per cent of the total fare with the driver receiving the remaining 75 per cent.

He explained, “The salary is determined by the number of trips you make and based on time and distance. It is paid every Thursday via direct deposit to your bank of choice.”

The law states:

Chapter 48:50, Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act states, “No person shall drive on any road, a taxi registered as such, unless he is the holder of a taxi-driver’s license issued to him by the Licensing Authority under these regulations”.

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