Toronto Police have executed a crackdown on UberX drivers, the latest escalation in a series of confrontations between city authorities and the U.S.-based ride-sharing company.
At least 11 alleged UberX drivers are facing a total of at least 22 charges after a week-long undercover sting on unlicensed taxicabs earlier this month. The crackdown comes as cities around the world struggle to regulate the new, controversial service, and amidst a legal battle between the City of Toronto and the app-based ride-sharing company.
Of particular concern for city officials – and the subject of this month's police crackdown – is the UberX service, which pairs ordinary drivers (as opposed to licensed taxi drivers) with paid passengers. The city's licensing division executed its own undercover investigation into UberX last year, as part of its court action to shutter the company's operations.
Police said Tuesday that the crackdown – which resulted in a variety of charges of inadequate insurance and licensing – was done of their own volition, and unrelated to the city's legal battle.
"A couple of my younger officers who are in touch with technology … identified a public-safety issue," said Superintendent Scott Wiedmark of Toronto Police's 12 Division. The 11 alleged drivers were scheduled for an appearance in Ontario Provincial Offences Court on Thursday, though Supt. Wiedmark said there may have been more drivers involved.
The company's traditional response to accusations of flouting the rules has been to call itself a technology company and not a taxi service. The police crackdown this month specifically targeted drivers on charges related to insurance and licensing. Ontario law requires commercial drivers to carry a commercial insurance policy and licence. UberX, meanwhile, advertises only the requirements of a personal driver's licence and insurance – though the company says it carries up to $5-million insurance beyond each driver's personal insurance.
Supt. Wiedmark said the crackdown, dubbed Project Snowball, involved a team of officers posing as Uber passengers between March 5 and 11. One of the drivers charged was 36-year-old Owais Matin. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Matin said he had begun moonlighting as an UberX driver about two months ago, and was not aware of the commercial licence requirement.
He said on the night of March 9, he accepted a ride request on the app, and picked up his fare at a Tim Hortons in the city's northwest. After a four-minute ride, Mr. Matin said he dropped off his passenger at a second Tim Hortons location. That's when he saw the police lights.
After the revelation that his "passenger" was in fact an undercover officer, Mr. Matin was charged with two violations of the Highway Traffic Act: Operating a commercial motor vehicle without proper insurance, and picking up a passenger for compensation without an appropriate licence. The potential penalties include fines ranging from $300 to $20,000.
"I asked the cop, 'Is it illegal to drive Uber?' " Mr. Matin said. "Uber said it's okay to drive, so I was driving," he said. "I gave them my documents, and they said that's all I need."
Representing the 11 alleged UberX drivers at a court appearance Tuesday was Gerald Chan of the high-profile Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan firm. Mr. Matin told The Globe that Uber retained the firm to represent the drivers.
In a statement, Uber spokesperson Susie Heath said that "in instances of enforcement, Uber has always supported its drivers fully." She declined to comment further in relation to the charges.
In response to growing controversy over Uber's privacy and safety policies, the company has launched public-relations campaigns around the world. In Toronto, Uber has actively lobbied city councillors and Mayor John Tory – who has expressed support for the service – asking for a new set of regulations to account for ride-sharing.
Supt. Wiedmark said that 12 Division does not plan on expanding on the crackdown, citing the continuing debate at City Hall.
As for Mr. Matin, he says he feels he's been caught in the middle in the battle between the city and Uber.
"The government is saying Uber is bad, so they should stop Uber. And Uber is saying you don't need commercial insurance, it's not a cab commercial business," he said. "I'm just confused."