Whether Jonathan Zissman will be able to continue to earn his living through Uber is up for debate in Trenton. A bill, A3765, which “establishes insurance and safety requirements for companies that use digital network or software application to match passengers with drivers” has recently passed the Assembly Transportation Committee and has been drafted to get Uber, and other “transportation networks” such as Uber’s competitors Lyft and Sidecar, to comply with insurance and safety requirements more akin to those taxi and limo companies have to abide by.
It is not a popular bill with Uber. “That bill would drive us out of New Jersey. It would hold Uber to a high range of costs, penalties, and regulations than it does for any other member of the transportation industry in the state,” says Matt Wing, Uber’s Northeast communications contact. He thinks that being forced out of the state is exactly what those behind the bill really want. Wing said that during a recent meeting of the Assembly Transportation Committee in Trenton, advocates for the bill in the chamber had also been outside the building chanting “Kick Uber out of New Jersey.”
Uber believes that the Uber operation is being forced out of the state by these special interests, the taxi and limousine companies that already operate in New Jersey, and that the high costs of insurance and additional background checks are unfair and designed simply to get Uber out of the state. “The current bill subjects us to higher costs for insurance than cab companies,” says Wing. Uber has mostly found a compromise with the other jurisdictions where it has had legal challenges, but Wing thought that the New Jersey Assembly was simply against them operating in the state entirely.
The bill was drafted to deal with what legislators and Uber opponents call the “insurance gap.” Because Uber drivers are not technically employed by Uber, Uber’s commercial insurance does not always cover their driving. If the Uber driver has a passenger in the back then they are covered by Uber’s insurance, with up to $1.5M coverage for driver liability. However, until recently the driver was not covered on their way to a pickup.
This issue was dramatically and distressingly shown to be the case when in December, 2013, when an Uber driver on his way to pick up a customer knocked down and killed six-year-old girl in San Francisco. Because no one was in the back of his car at the time, Uber denied responsibility.
Partly through negative publicity, and partly through pressure from statehouses across the country, Uber is now trying to close this insurance gap. Uber continues to say that if an incident happens when a passenger is not in the car that the driver’s personal auto insurance should cover the accident. A lot of insurance companies would challenge such a payout if they found that the vehicle was being used commercially, so Uber has also introduced its own insurance to cover this period, offering $1 million of coverage for liability from the moment that a trip request comes through.
“We are going to continue to meet and negotiate with members of the legislature to find a solution that is productive and that would not cost New Jersey thousands of jobs and would eliminate a reliable transportation alternative for its residents” says Wing, when asked about his next step. Uber has worked with other states to find a compromise, he says.
But in the meantime, this issue of legality remains and the harshest critics insist that Uber is operating illegally. The Uber spokesperson, Wing, said “we are operating within our new framework and that’s why we are pushing for legislation in the first place.” Uber is betting on the idea of becoming indispensable to the people of New Jersey, who will then push the legislators to let them operate. Call it crowd-lobbying.