Smartphone Ride Service Legislation Picks Up Speed in Va. Senate

Drivers for Lyft and Uber visited Richmond on Monday for a Senate transportation subcommittee hearing on regulations to allow their businesses to operate permanently.

by Patrick Wilson, The Virginian-Pilot / January 20, 2015

(TNS) Legislation to permanently allow smartphone-based ride services in Virginia is poised for approval this year.

Drivers for Lyft and Uber, services popular in Hampton Roads, visited Richmond on Monday for a Senate transportation subcommittee hearing on regulations to allow their businesses to operate permanently.

Calling the companies innovative, several senators expressed support for a bill to regulate them and help them grow. The subcommittee sent SB1025 to the full Senate Transportation Committee for consideration on Wednesday.

The legislation must ensure that riders and drivers are safe, said sponsor Sen. John Watkins, R-Midlothian.

"It is extremely important that we do not put up barriers to new technology and to new businesses in this state," Watkins said. "We've got to get it right and not leave the public at risk."

Lyft and Uber drivers are generally professionals using their personal vehicles to earn extra money. Payment and rides are handled through smartphone apps, which show the driver and rider pictures of each other. Riders also see a picture of the driver's vehicle, have the ability to call the driver and find the driver's location through GPS.

Drivers and riders rate each other, and the drivers must maintain a high rating.

San Francisco-based Lyft began operating in Hampton Roads last spring. But questions arose over whether it could legally operate in Virginia because no state law governed such businesses, which faced and still face opposition from taxi and limousine companies.

In June, Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Richard Holcomb sent cease-and-desist orders to Lyft and Uber telling them to stop operating or face civil penalties. Two months later, however, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring announced they could operate legally under a temporary permit.

The special permit will be extended to July, when new regulations would be imposed, Holcomb told the subcommittee.

The proposed legislation sets standards for insurance, requires background and annual record checks for drivers, and creates fines if the drivers do something like hail a ride on the street instead of accepting a fare through the smartphone apps.

Companies will pay the state to help cover the cost of regulating them, Holcomb said.

Each company must send the DMV a list of vehicles being used, and the state would issue decals for them.

Lyft drivers from Hampton Roads were among those who came to Richmond to make their case. Among them: Calvin Bell of Norfolk, who is in the Air Force Reserve and a student at ECPI University.

Adrian Armendariz of Virginia Beach, a Navy widow and single mother, said working as a Lyft driver helped her supplement her income. "This is providing something that my community absolutely needs."

Opponents also spoke.

B. Frank Stokes Jr., a private investigator who worked for a representative of the Virginia Taxi Association, said that between August and November private investigators looking into Uber found 11 drivers willing to give a second ride "off app." In other words, they agreed to give a second ride to undercover riders who would simply text them for pickup. Four drivers were paid in cash and tipped by the undercover riders - a violation of Lyft and Uber protocol.

©2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)