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Wednesday 3 September 2014

Taximen could stop lift-sharing apps getting a free ride here

Adrian Weckler

Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30

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USERS of 'peer to peer' car transportation rental apps may be facing a crackdown in Ireland, as regulators and taxi drivers start to take notice of booming online services.

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As London taxi drivers continue to agitate against the private car hire app Uber, Irish taxi drivers are starting to complain about smartphone apps that allow people to organise lifts with laymen drivers.

Such 'peer to peer' driver services, including Wundercar, which launches in Dublin today, are starting to pop up following the success of accommodation equivalents such as Airbnb. However, some may be falling foul of the law here.

"In the case of an app-based or online service using unlicensed drivers or unlicensed vehicles, both the driver and the provider of the app or service are committing offences," a spokesman for the National Transport Authority told the Irish Independent.

"The driver of the vehicle operating without both a driver and vehicle licence is liable to a fine of up to €5,000."

That puts dozens of apps, including relative newcomers such as Wundercar or online services such as Carpooling.com, squarely in the transportation authority's crosshairs.

Taxi drivers here say it's not before time. Although not as militant as counterparts in London and Paris, where large demonstrations have either occurred or are planned, Dublin taxi drivers are starting to complain about the issue.

"It's an aberration of the law and of fairness," said Jerry Brennan, the national secretary of the National Irish Taxi Association (NITA). "There are so many of these things coming over the horizon and many are completely unregulated. It's not for the sake of complaining, but unregulated cars really do open up a huge can of worms for passenger and vehicle safety."

According to the National Transport Authority, Irish law allows "non-commercial" car sharing services "a limited exception" to the general licensing requirements "where any payment given to the driver does not exceed the fuel costs of the journey". That is supposed to allow ordinary people to hitch lifts without criminalising the act of sharing the petrol or diesel costs.

It would also appear to give services such as Carpooling.com, which is set up across Europe to encourage non-commercial car-sharing, leeway to operate in Ireland.

However, even these services are viewed with suspicion by established Irish taxi drivers.

"I was disappointed that the NTA should allow this sort of thing," said the NITA's Jerry Brennan. "It's still promoting a service that's unlicensed.

"Look, every single taxi driver has to get his licence first, with background checks, then an exam with only 20pc pass rate.

"Then the appointed vehicle is NCT'd and tested again every year. It's constantly under observation from 24 compliance officers. And this is all for the safety of the passenger. Honestly, nobody knows who might be driving some of these services. We think they could really be dangerous."

However, taxi drivers here are less upset about Uber, the soaraway €12bn private car hire app, or taxi app Hailo. In Hailo's case, it's because the entire service was founded and run by taxi drivers. With Uber, it is partly because drivers of its fleet cars here are generally licensed in the same way as limousine drivers.

"Uber are not so much of a threat here," said Brennan. "You don't have 3,000 or 4,000 private hire vehicles here, partly because Irish law effectively did away with hackney drivers. That's different from the UK, where private hire drivers still represent a large number of vehicles."

But what about payment? Isn't Uber's mechanism – the payment of drivers through an app, depending on the length of the journey – not undermining the idea of a taxi meter?

"I've heard that claim," said Brennan. "But when it comes to the law it's a very different thing."

The National Transport Authority says that it won't be drawn into comment on "individual parties or individual cases". However, it's fairly clear about some ground rules.

"The offence in the case of the app provider may be, depending on circumstances, the provision of a booking service without what is known as a Dispatch Operator Licence," a spokesman said. "If prosecuted and found guilty of such an offence, the fine is up to €50,000."

Four Apps for taxis

Uber

What it does: connects people to private hire vehicles through the app. Cars tend to be large and comfortable, often limousine or luxury car classes.

Cost: Depends on length of journey, typically starts at €15 per journey.

Wundercar

What it does: It allows people to register as drivers and collect “tips” (through the Wundercar app) for rides given to passengers.

The app also allows people to seek out cars as an alternative to taxis.

Cost: Optional: based on tips

Hailo

What it does: It connects people to registered taxis. Allows payment through the app. Used by taxi drivers as an alternative – or an addition to – radio cab services.

Cost: Depends on the journey; normal metered fares apply

Carpooling.com

What it does: It allows people to seek or offer lifts on a non-commercial basis. Still a fledgling service in Ireland; more established in continental Europe.

Cost: This is calculated on the cost of the car journey and agreed between the parties

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