FOX10 Special Investigation: Who's watching Uber? - FOX10 News | WALA

FOX10 Special Investigation: Who's watching Uber?

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MOBILE, AL (WALA) -

FOX10 News is committed to your safety. We are digging deeper into how Uber operates on the Gulf Coast and how Mobile is regulating its drivers.

It all started about four months ago when the Mobile City Council approved changes to its vehicle-for-hire ordinance. In it, Uber is listed as a "transportation network company," a separate classification from a taxi with its own set of guidelines.

However, some people across the bay are questioning the safety and the legality of its operations. As FOX10 News reporter Devan Coffaro discovered, not every Uber car on the Gulf Coast goes through a safety inspection.

You go downtown on a Saturday night with friends. Maybe you had too much to drink or maybe you need a ride to the airport early in the morning. No matter what time of day, a quick tap on your smart phone can have a driver at the curb in minutes.

Uber is billed as a faster and cheaper alternative to your traditional taxi service, with drivers using their personal cars, but how is it regulated?

Here's what we found out - the city of Mobile requires vehicle-for-hire services, like taxis, to have every driver go through a criminal background check at the police department. Those checks go through the FBI and the driver is then finger printed for police records. Each driver pays an application fee and the police chief approves their license.

Transportation network companies, on the other hand, like Uber, pay an annual fee to the city to obtain licenses for all of its drivers. They conduct all background checks through a third party and if the city wants to see Uber's records, like who these drivers are and they’re background checks, the ordinance states the city has to audit them "no more frequently than on a quarterly basis."

Both are required to go through a vehicle safety check before they can hit the road. Taxis go through the city. Uber drivers have a mechanic fill out a form and send it back in to Uber.

Uber driver Nick Braaksma said business in Mobile is booming.

“You can make anywhere from $200 to $700 a week,” said Braaksma. "I think we render a phenomenal service and we do our job and we do our best."

This is where we run into some problems - Mobile is the only city on Alabama's Gulf Coast to pass an ordinance that allows Uber, but the map on Uber's website shows that drivers are also operating in Baldwin County. City leaders said Uber can drop off customers within their city limits, but they can't legally pick someone up. However, a quick look on the app shows drivers are in the area waiting for someone to request a ride.

"In order for Uber to operate in our city, the requirements would be similar to other types of businesses requiring to have a franchise because they are using city streets and the city resources to operate, and a business license,” said Gulf Shores spokesman Grant Brown.

Brown explained drivers could face fines up to $500 for picking someone up.

Orange Beach Police Chief Robert Howard said the same goes for drivers in his city.

"We consider Uber no different than our commercial transportation - our cabs, limousines. There's a process to go through. Until Uber drivers do the same process, then they are considered illegally transporting in the city of Orange Beach,” said Howard. "We just can't condone that without knowing the safety issues"

So we decided to test it out. We went across the street from the Orange Beach Police Station and ordered an Uber that was in Gulf Shores.

Our driver, who didn't want to be identified, told us he is technically registered in Mobile, but he works in Baldwin County because he truck hasn't gotten a safety inspection.

"They require a vehicle inspection on all of our personal vehicles. I just have not had time to go in and get that done yet, but I don't do any Ubering in Mobile."

We took our questions to Uber representatives.

"Mobile City Council regulations require an inspection by a certified mechanic, but again, because there are no rides-haring rules and Baldwin County at this time, drivers it seems like do not have to undergo that vehicle inspection,” said Uber spokesperson Kaitlin Durkosh.

Durkosh said Uber will continue to operate in Baldwin County.

"We are happy to sit down with any regulator in Alabama and talk about our business model and talk through how we can come to an agreement on a set of sensible ride-sharing regulations that enable Uber to operate in that particular community.”

“But in the meantime, drivers just keep operating there?” asked Devan Coffaro.

Durkosh responded “yes.”

“Not a good idea,” said Chief Howard. “Eventually we are going to catch you when you will be cited."

City leaders say they haven't written any citations yet, but they won't hesitate to leave drivers at the curb.

Uber representatives did tell us that if any of their drivers are fined in Baldwin County, Uber will pay for them.

All content © 2015, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved. 

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