Tuscaloosa, AL to Uber Drivers: Stop Driving or Face Arrest

Innovative, mobile app-based rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft have exploded in popularity across the US. They provide jobs for out-of-work or underemployed people with reliable cars and offer low-cost rides for those in need of transportation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokesperson J.T. Griffin offered support for rideshare companies, which, according to DUI arrest records, appear to reduce incidences of drunk driving, saying, “MADD supports new ridesharing platforms like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar as well as traditional taxi services that are enabling more options to provide safe rides in communities across the country.”

Considering the facts that rideshare companies create jobs, provide transportation options, and help keep drunk drivers off the road, one would think that politicians would be chomping at the bit to modernize vehicle-for-hire regulations in an effort to get Uber and Lyft moving in their towns. Instead, many officials in cities across the US have fought against rideshare companies and in some cases have even threatened to arrest drivers for trying to make ends meet through the platforms.

According to AL.com, the City of Tuscaloosa, AL, home to the University of Alabama, recently took its battle against Uber to the extreme and ordered Uber drivers to quit working or face arrest. On October 3, Uber representatives and city officials met in an attempt to resolve an ongoing regulatory dispute. Uber Tuscaloosa general manager Billy Guernier paraphrased what city employees said at the meeting in comments to AL.com, “The message was ‘Unless you guys are willing to cease operations and stop offering this valuable option to consumers, we will no longer work with you, we will no longer negotiate with you, and beginning on Wednesday, we will begin arresting drivers for working on the Uber platform.'”

City officials complain that Uber’s drivers are violating the town’s vehicle-for-hire regulations, which were written without Uber’s modernized business model in mind. Uber’s Billy Guernier has attempted to meet with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox in an effort to negotiate regulatory tweaks that would satisfy both parties, but has not yet been granted a meeting. In fact, Guernier said that no elected officials from the city have met with Uber and that the city has only allowed the company to negotiate with bureaucrats who lack the power to make the kind of changes to the law that would be necessary when modernizing regulations to meet the needs of new technology.

Mayor Maddox told Tuscaloosa News, “I believe Uber needs to follow the standards that are set by a community and work in good faith with the people who are entrusted with making those decisions… But breaking the law is breaking the law. And whether you agree or disagree with it, the city has to enforce the rules on its books.”

Starting last Wednesday, drivers caught working for Uber will be arrested on misdemeanor charges for violating the town’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance. Tuscaloosa Police Department representative Sergeant Brent Blankley defended the city’s position to AL.com, “Since the day Uber announced they were coming to Tuscaloosa the city has been open and willing to work with them. The willingness to reach an agreement has seemed to be one-sided… The city has given Uber items that we would be willing to look into, but some of the things we will not change, such as [requiring] background checks, insurance and vehicle inspections, are for the safety of the passengers.”

In comments to Tuscaloosa News, Uber representative Taylor Bennett said, “The bottom line is Uber has set a new standard for safety and quality. Our industry-leading background checks, $1 million commercial liability insurance, and an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability built into the app make Uber the safest ride on the road.” He also told Alabama Watchdog, “Uber continues to be available in over 215 cities around the world, moving folks safely and reliably around town; at this time demand greatly exceeds supply in Tuscaloosa.”

Billy Guernier has urged Uber users in Tuscaloosa to contact their elected officials in an effort to end the crackdown on Uber drivers. He also indicated that the new policy, if it results in arrests, may force Uber to stop offering its services in Tuscaloosa, a busy university city which already suffers from limited transportation options. Said Guernier, “If the city is actually willing to arrest drivers, it would be clear to me that their interests are so backwards and their focus so far off of improving life in Tuscaloosa, I wouldn’t have any interest in working with them anymore. There are a lot of places that still need ride-sharing and still need UberX, and I’ll be happy to take it to them.”