The End of an Icon?

From the lovable East Coast cabbies featured on countless movies and TV shows, to the vastly more sinister Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro in 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” New York cabs and their drivers are nothing short of iconic. Therefore, it’s a bit off-putting to realize that, as reported by Curbed New York, Uber and Lyft vehicles are already seriously outnumbering the classic yellow cab in the Big Apple.

End of an era?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the New York cab will be going away anytime soon. The sheer ubiquity of cabs in NYC makes them far more accessible than they would be in other cities. After all, the ridesharing services have an enormous advantage over cabs in a sprawling city like Los Angeles because, outside of certain parts of Hollywood and Downtown, you could spend hours on a typical street corner waiting for an available cab to drive by. Indeed, even calling a cab for a ride to the airport can be something of crap shoot if you’re expecting it to arrive on time. Ridesharing services in L.A. are not only cheaper than cabs, they are more dependable.

In many parts of Manhattan, however, all one has to do is hold up a hand and a cab will dutifully pull up. Indeed, New Yorkers are probably more comfortable taking cabs than people from any other city.  Curbed notes that, despite being outnumbered, New York taxis are still taking more daily trips than ridesharing vehicles – at least for the moment.

For the time being, at least, then, it seems that cabs and Uber/Lyft vehicles will be sharing the streets of New York City. During that time, it will be interesting to compare the rates of personal injuries between the two kinds of vehicles, as well as the impacts of the difference between the amount of insurance held by cab drivers versus the much larger levels of coverage that Uber and Lyft insist on. Right now, it seems to us as the ridesharing services are winning, in terms of popularity if not public safety. However, time will only tell if the New York cab companies might find a way to reassert their historic dominance.  Personal injury matters could be a factor.

The Future is (Almost) Now

With all the concern about whether or not Lyft and Uber are meeting the security and safety requirements of various cities, the ridesharing giants, and their drivers, may be facing a more serious problem in the relatively near future. According to an article on Tech Times, a new patent may mean that Google’s long-discussed plans to launch a network of autonomous ridesharing cars may be started sooner rather than later.

The future is now

To those of a certain age, this will feel like science fiction, though to the thousands of ridesharing drivers and cabdrivers it might seem more like a horror movie since they could easily become another category of worker essentially being replaced by robots. Even so, it may be some time until autonomous cars are able to wholly replace drivers. For one thing, it appears likely that the autonomous cars will not be able to go just anywhere and could be blocked by construction zones – something we see plenty of in busy urban areas. At the same time, Tech Times writes that Google should be able to overcome these issues by establishing specialized pick-up areas.

Even so, just as certain issues have developed around human-based ridesharing, some problems may also likely emerge around driverless cars. One issue that hasn’t been mentioned is that prospective passengers might simply decide they neither like nor trust them. Some might feel have sympathies with the threatened livelihoods of drivers, others might simply have an innate fear of cars that seem to have no drivers. Of course, if accidents do start to occur with these Google rideshares, then those latter fears will be bolstered. Of course, very low prices could be used as a carrot to try and overcome these concerns.

In any case, it will be very likely that Google cars will be covered by the same kind of high insurance coverage for liability that Uber and Lyft currently carry. Since robots don’t make errors the way people do, it’s likely that the Google cars will be safer than ordinary cars. Nevertheless, accidents really do happen, whether or not people are actually driving both vehicles.

Something for Uber and Lyft Customers to Keep in Mind

A recent USA Today article offers some eye-opening information for both prospective ridesharing drivers and their customers. It turn out that you don’t actually need to own an Uber or Lyft-worthy car in order to drive for one of the big outfits, though that’s still probably the most common path. There are numerous other options, including a partnership between Lyft and manufacturing giant General Motors that leases cars to drivers, but which offers them the lease for free once they hit more than 75 rides in a week. Hertz and Enterprise Rent-a-Car also offer somewhat similar leasing options. Uber has a short term leasing program, and a peer-to-peer service called Hyrecar that allows ridesharing drivers to arrange their own rentals with ordinary vehicle owners.

Something for Uber and Lyft Customers to Keep in Mind

This may be pretty good news for people who would like to make money by driving for a ridesharing company but who may not own a car, or may not own one that’s up to the standards most Uber and Lyft customers expect. On the other hand, from a point of view of those of us concerned about personal injury cases, there may be some concerns. We’re not sure how significant they are, but they’re at least worth mentioning.

Specifically, with these short term leasing options, it’s possible that some ridesharing drivers might not be fully knowledgeable about all aspects of their vehicles. After all, once you’ve owned a car for a week or two, you tend to know it pretty well, but there’s a period of adjustment when you may not fully understand all the features. Also, as any of us who’ve rented a car knows, the first hour or so of driving can sometimes be a bit stressful as we realize that we don’t really understand the way the car works as well as we might have assumed. If you’ve ever found yourself suddenly realizing you can’t figure out how to turn on the headlights on your new rental, you’ll know what we’re talking about!

That means, we think, there’s obviously some potential for a hazard posed by momentary confusion or distraction that could increase the chances of an injury. At least, as we keep mentioning, Uber and Lyft carry a great deal of liability as well as uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. This may be one more reason why that’s probably a good thing.

The Power of Information

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Ridesharing giant Uber is trying to keep some information to itself, and that apparently isn’t pleasing the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. According to an article on Bloomberg Technology, the issue is data about the address and times of drop-offs. The city is arguing that it needs the information to prevent drivers from getting dangerously tired and also because of citywide limits of 60 hours per week of driving time per driver.

Uber is arguing that sharing this information would constitute an invasion of privacy and that the city had previously accidentally shared data about cab rides. To underline the matter, the service tried to persuade their New York area customers to take to Twitter to criticize the mayor’s stance. The writer of the article points out, however, that Uber might be living in a proverbial glass house when it comes to matter of privacy, as it been under some fire for applications that seek to track customers’ movements after rides have ended. The writer notes that there have been charges of improper use of information from former employees as well.

As personal injury specialists, we obviously view these matters through the prism of public safety. Driver fatigue is a serious problem whether someone is driving for Uber, Lyft, a private truck or cab company or, of course, as an ordinary motorist. It seems understandable to us that a city might want to regulate the number of hours that drivers are working for the sake of public safety.

Of course, Uber and Lyft likely believe that they are already taking sufficient precautions to prevent undue driver fatigue. They are also certainly fully aware of the money they are spending to provide their drivers with roughly $1 million in insurance coverage for liability and uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. From the point of view of the rest of us, that might be good to know after we’ve been injured but, of course, we’d all prefer not to be injured because of driver fatigue in the first place!

Hit and Miss

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A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune describes some pretty dramatic and scary holes in background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers in the Twin Cities area.  For example…

Among those approved to drive here: convicted felons, drivers with as many as four drunken driving convictions and men convicted of crimes related to assaulting their wives and girlfriends. Most continue to drive for the companies, which now provide more rides in the Twin Cities than traditional taxis.

It’s a startling reality and one that may have paved the way for a number of alarming incidents. At the same time, however, the companies insist they follow local standards and exercise appropriate discretion in their selection of drivers. Even so, after the Star Tribune gave its findings to the ridesharing companies and area officials, a number of drivers were removed and both companies say they are doing what they can to prevent future lapses.

Of course, background checks, whether in Minneapolis or Los Angeles are never going to be completely foolproof. As Uber and Lyft accident attorneys, we can only comment that it’s a very good thing that they provide their drivers with about $1 million worth of insurance to cover liability when they are responsible for a crash, as well as uninsured/under-insured motorist to cover cases where another party is at fault.

Obviously, it’s very important for them to improve their screening to prevent allowing drivers with recent DUIs and any assault convictions from driving for them. Nevertheless, it’s also a good thing that they are also keeping their drivers very well insured.

Sin City Transformation

When people think of Las Vegas, they think of gambling, drinking, and other things our mothers would rather not have us doing. But, almost as much as cities like New York and Chicago, taxi cabs have long been a part of Sin City’s scintillating culture. As an article in the Las Vegas Review Journal points out, however, that is probably changing.

The piece notes that rideshare giants Uber and Lyft appear to be cutting into the business of cabs in a major way, with taxi trips being reduced by some 19.2 percent between November of 2016 and 2015. Local regulators are also apparently crying foul, arguing that fees and licensing are not being handled fairly.

It’s hard to say whether or not the taxi industry will be able to fight back, but they do seem like underdogs right now. Lyft and Uber are incredibly convenient and nimble services and, of course, substantially less expensive than cabs, though that might change in the future.

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Even so, the change might not be completely for the better. There are always trade-offs.  First, there is the cultural issue. Taxi drivers are professionals and have a certain way of looking at things that can make them valuable beyond simply getting from place to place. If you’re over a certain age, there’s a good chance you have some fond memories of chats with colorful cab drivers. We’re not saying that ridesharing drivers can’t also be colorful characters, but the fact that they largely tend to be part-timers trying to earn some extra cash, rather than full-time professionals, makes them somewhat less of a breed apart.

More seriously, of course, with more lenient requirements for Uber and Lyft drivers, personal injuries could begin to increase over time. While many agencies are arguing to heighten screening requirements, and that might help, there is one more saving grace that we often tend to hark back to. That’s the fact that, as billion dollar companies, Uber and Lyft provide quite a bit of insurance coverage for their drivers: roughly $1 million to cover their own liability and uninsured/underinsured motorists who may be at fault. While it’s obviously much better to avoid a personal injury than to have to be compensated for one, it’s at least good to know that it’s there if you need it.

Uber and Lyft as Public Transportation?

An article on Slate describes how some public transportation systems around the nation are offering discounted Uber rides. It then goes on to express some highly detailed concern with the practice, which writer Henry Grabar is alleging is being used as a sort of stopgap substitute for more traditional mass transit. He adds that the ride hailing companies like Uber and its biggest competitor, Lyft, are currently operating at a loss, despite their multi-billion dollar valuations. He speculates that much higher fares are likely coming for riders at some point in the future. At that point, they might not seem like such a convenient add-on to mass transit.

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Interesting but what, if anything, does it mean for riders in the here and now? For the time being, at least, the ridesharing giants will continue working hard to attract more ridership via discounts and other promotions, and to avoid any bad public relations.  For those of us concerned about personal injury law, this means that they will most likely continue to carry significantly more insurance on behalf of their drivers than most individuals are willing to pay for.  The vast majority of ridesharing experiences will remain about as pleasant and efficient as they are at present.

However, mass transit is also an important public good, especially here in the traffic-clogged Greater Los Angeles area. As the Slate article said, Uber and Lyft rides can definitely be effective for solving what is known as “the last mile problem.” Still, for those of who believe in public transportation, there may be times when it wouldn’t hurt us to explore ways to avoid using that Uber ride for the last mile. Sometimes, there are shorter-range options – like the DASH buses in Downtown L.A. and elsewhere.  And there are those funny contraptions at the bottom of our legs. We like to call to call them “feet”!

Is the Best Uber Driver No Uber Driver?

So, Slash Gear is reporting that Uber is opening up an AI (artificial intelligence) lab in, where else, San Francisco. According to the article, the ridesharing giant will be creating a standalone division to be called Uber AI Labs, which will be dedicated not only to the self-driving cars we’ve been hearing so much about for the last few years, but will also go deeper into how electronic devices can move about a world and deal with all the unpredictable factors it can throw up – particularly the funny things that we human beings so often do.  This would include not only cars, but all sorts of other vehicles including, we imagine, aerial drones, automatic pilots, and the like. But, let’s stick to cars on this one.

Is the Best Uber Driver No Uber Driver?

Of course, from the point of view of personal injury lawyers, the most interesting aspect of this is what happens in the fairly inevitable event of an injury accident involving these kinds of vehicles. We’ve already seen some serious collisions involving driverless cars but, as the numbers of these cars slowly increase over the next several years, we’re going to start seeing some very interesting situations. For example, because we tend to think of humans as being inherently prone to make errors, many of us may assume that they will typically be the at fault party in a collision – but that could turn out to be an incorrect assumption.

There may well be cases where other drivers or pedestrians are following all of the rules of the road and may still wind up being injured, in which case the robot (i.e., the software) driving the car would actually be at fault. Of course, in a case like that, the company that owned the vehicle would be the financially responsible party. In other words, Uber would be very well advised to only hire the best and brightest minds to staff its AI Labs. Errors could be costly.

Beyond Uber and Lyft?

It seems that just about every American city has its own special relationship with the big ridesharing companies, Uber and Lyft. Austin, Texas might be among the most interesting. That’s because, right now, it has no relationship with either company; the companies both left town after a ballot proposition sponsored by them failed. Now , as recounted in a lengthy piece in Curbed, the term “wild west” is being used because a number of smaller ridesharing companies have popped up to fill the void, and some of the cars reportedly carry stickers for several of these at a time.

Beyond Uber and Lyft

As you might imagine, there are some pluses and minuses associated with the situation. Riders are often paying lower costs than they would have with the ridesharing giants, and many of the drivers say they prefer their new bosses because of better wages and other benefits.

One issue, however, the article does not address is the matter of liability. As billion dollar national companies, Uber and Lyft are able to provide roughly $1 million in liability and in uninsured and underinsured driver coverage for their drivers while they are on the job. This can benefit both victims of accidents where rideshare drivers are at fault, but also drivers who are involved in collisions where another driver is legally responsible. It also means, of course, that passengers who are injured in accidents where either driver is at fault may be able to obtain higher amounts of compensation than might otherwise be possible.

This also means that smaller companies may not be able to afford large amounts of insurance coverage and, with fewer assets, they may also be less motivated to.  Here in California, where Uber and Lyft completely dominate the market, it might be an academic question. But in Austin, Texas at least, it seems likely that personal injury victims might not be among the beneficiaries of the city’s wild west ridesharing culture.

At Your Fingertips

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In our last post, we talked about the move to require intensive background checks on Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts. Before that news story developed, however, there was already something of a minor controversy brewing  in Maryland, with the two companies arguing they should not be required to fingerprint drivers, long a standard practice in the state when it came to taxi drivers.

The ridesharing companies are arguing that their own standard background checks are more effective and up-to-date, and that fingerprinting might tend to discriminate against minority drivers, who are more likely to have been arrested and fingerprinted than others. (Studies often show racial disparities in terms of such matters as drug arrests.)  Uber has threatened to withdraw its business from Maryland over the matter, though the firm makes an exception in New York City, where fingerprinting is required.

Of course, even as personal injury attorneys, it’s hard to know the impact something like fingerprinting in terms of whether or not it improves the safety of passengers and others. On the surface, it might be tempting to simply argue that any attempt to heighten the level of security is all to the good, regardless of whether or not such a move might unfairly remove some otherwise fully qualified and responsible drivers from consideration.  Others would argue, however, that the appearance of tighter security offered by fingerprinting does not necessarily translate into greater safety for everyone concerned. Another argument on the pro-fingerprinting side might be that screening out people who might have been formally involved with drugs or had DUI charges, even if not convicted, might seem like a sure plus in terms of safety.

All we can really say is that the, regardless, the public should stay on their toes whenever they get into a rideshare or taxi cab. Even the best screening program in the world will never be 100% effective at screening out problematic individuals.