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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Congress’s New Rideshare Safety Bill Could Totally Ruin Ridesharing

“Sami’s Law” is a Trojan horse for over-regulation that would empower bureaucrats at the expense of businesses, drivers and riders alike.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Your ride home could get more expensive thanks to a new bipartisan bill, hastily passed by the House of Representatives last month. “Sami’s Law,” named after Samantha Josephson, a North Carolina college student who was tragically murdered after getting into a car that she mistook for her Uber during a night out, would empower bureaucrats at the expense of businesses, drivers and riders alike.

What happened to Sami Josephson is truly horrific, and the bill was drafted with the noble intent of protecting ride-share passengers and instituting regulations to promote safety. However, the legislation goes far beyond that, and would drive up costs, stifle innovation and leave drivers and riders alike worse off with little to no safety benefit. So far, Congress has simply failed to pay attention to the unintended and long-term consequences of Sami’s Law.

The bill, which is now before the Senate, is set to create a 15-member council in the Department of Transportation to propose future rideshare regulations for adoption by the secretary of the department without the need for legislation or debate. Such Washington DC-based bodies operate under perverse incentives to over-regulate, regardless of the costs they impose. It’s no wonder why. Their very existence is premised on the supposed problem of insufficient regulation.

Yet, independent of any government mandate, rideshare companies have made voluntary strides to improve safety in response to rider concerns. These self-imposed regulations often rival or exceed those once imposed on the taxi industry. They include insurance policies, criminal background checks for drivers, a rating system for riders that removes drivers with poor ratings, emergency safety features built into the apps themselves, and rider access to drivers’ names, pictures, car models and license plate numbers for ease and confidence in identification. These companies are responding appropriately to their riders concerns through self-regulation. There’s simply no need for bureaucratic “advisory” bodies to take the reins.

In addition, advisory bodies and politically appointed positions, like the transportation secretary, are prone to be swayed by vested interests. The secretary and other bureaucrats, who could be influenced by groups like the taxi lobby or large companies that are more capable of responding and adapting to regulations that they often help write than smaller competitors, have the power to make decisions that would affect start-up companies, drivers, and ordinary folks who just want an affordable ride home. This kind cronyism already exists within the government, and it’s something that we should be seeing less of, not more.

To make matters worse, the bill provides a generous 12-year “sunset” period for the 15-member advisory council it proposes and allows for this body to be made permanent through a single sign-off by the transportation secretary.

The bill’s key requirements also demand that ridesharing companies implement a verification system that would require drivers to confirm a four-digit pin number sent to riders prior to starting a trip. This might seem like a positive step towards safety improvement through a verification system, but what happens if a passenger’s phone runs out of battery before they memorize the code? Being stranded could inadvertently put a rider at an increased risk of harm.

Furthermore, this is already a feature that some companies, like Uber, have incorporated on an opt-in basis for passengers who are especially concerned about their own safety. Why, then, is a mandate necessary? The bill also requires that drivers have more prominent markers on their vehicle to identify them as approved rideshare drivers. However, this ignores the fact that rideshare impersonators can simply use similar markings.

Sami’s law was inspired by an unspeakable tragedy that will hopefully never happen again. And perhaps that’s why it has managed to pass through the House of Representatives with little attention or scrutiny from the media or politicians themselves. But the bill deserves more scrutiny.

No matter how well-intentioned it may be, there’s no reason why a tragedy should become a Trojan horse that allows the regulatory and bureaucratic state to creep into our lives, stifle innovative industries, and take money out of our pockets. That will help nobody at all.

  • Satya Marar is a Young Voices contributor and is Director of Policy at the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.