Ridesharing bill could pick up speed this year

Proposal would require background checks for Uber, Lyft drivers

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Turnover in the Florida Senate could signal brighter prospects this year for a renewed proposal that would prevent local governments from regulating app-based transportation services such as Uber and Lyft.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, identical measures (SB 340 and HB 221) were introduced Wednesday that would create statewide rules for "transportation network companies" and set insurance and background-check requirements for drivers.

"At the end of the day, tourists expect this type of access, business travelers demand these services, and frankly Floridians deserve it," Brandes said.

Similar proposals have failed the past two legislative sessions as Senate leaders questioned the idea of preempting local regulations and focused on issues such as insurance requirements.

But with Stuart Republican Joe Negron taking over as Senate president and 20 new senators after the November elections, Brandes said during a news conference Wednesday that "this is the year for ridesharing in Florida."

"We have a new Senate, new faces, new visions," Brandes said.

The previous legislation ran into opposition from the taxicab industry, which typically faces local regulations. Former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, lobbying on behalf of the Florida Taxicab Association, agreed that turnover in the Senate will make it more difficult this year for groups arguing to keep local rule-making and for stronger background checks.

"You have 20 new senators, many are from the Florida House, who have been very supportive of this legislation in the past," Bogdanoff said.

Bogdanoff, who argued that the proposal would establish an unfair balance between taxi companies and rideshare services, said local officials may be better positioned than the Legislature to take emergency steps, if needed.

"It's much (more) difficult to react to something that might be catastrophic, whereas you might need to control who enters and who exits the airport or who enters and exits the seaport," Bogdanoff said. "That is something that the local officials are going to be expected to address, and they're going to have their hands tied if everything is preempted."

Before the bills were released Wednesday, the Florida Taxicab Association announced it will continue to seek stronger background checks and insurance requirements for rideshare drivers.

"As an industry, we agree with much of what has been debated in the past related to reducing barriers and regulations for TNCs (transportation network companies) as well as taxicab companies," Roger Chapin, an association member and executive with Mears Transportation, said in a prepared statement. "However, we firmly believe any legislation should also protect passengers, drivers and third parties when it comes to consumer protections such as background checks and insurance."

The latest measure would require transportation network companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. People would be prohibited from becoming rideshare drivers if they have three moving violations in the prior 3-year period; have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years; or have been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hit-and-run, or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer within the past five years.

Uber driver Ricky Poole said he agrees with the proposed requirement. 

"If you're going to have a person driving the public around, you should know something about them," Poole said. "So having a background check, personally, I don't think is a bad idea."

Critics of the proposal have in the past sought the use of fingerprinting as part of broader criminal background checks.

Under the proposal, drivers would also have to have insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when going to pick up a passenger. Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage for death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

Bogdanoff said the two sides were close to an agreement on insurance.

The measure would allow local governments to impose fees on rideshare drivers when picking up or dropping off riders from airports. However, the charges would have to be consistent with what taxicab companies must pay.

The bill would make it illegal for Uber drivers to solicit business outside of the Uber app. And drivers would not be allowed to pick up random customers on the street like a traditional cab service.

“If Uber drivers are doing the hail like cabs do, then yes, you are taking money out of my pocket and that’s 100 percent not fair. You do what you have to do but that’s not fair," Pool said.

Uber driver Sam Bashiti said that part of the proposal takes away earning potential from the individual driver.

“There was a time when I decided not to drive because I was seeing Uber was getting paid a lot more than what I was getting. So, sometimes, I had to turn it off. Why would I get $5 from Uber when (I) can get at least $10 or $15 from the customer?" said Bashiti. 

The bill would prohibit Uber drivers from discriminating against customers. While Bashiti said drivers should never discriminate, he also argued that safety should comes first.

“Sometimes you get customers that you don’t want to ride with because you don’t feel safe," he said.

The bill would also prohibit companies like Uber from being regulated by local governments, which means all the regulations would fall under state jurisdiction.

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