SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 12, 2014

New driving service spurs questions

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — A new driving service making waves across the country is entering the North Shore and about half of Cape Ann.

The company — called Uber — officially expanded into the North Shore at the end of January. UberBlack, the company’s higher-end limousine service, is now working on Cape Ann.

UberBlack uses a mobile phone application that hones in on your location. In a few taps on a smartphone, Uber sends a car to meet a fare based on the global positioning information, allowing a user to see what drivers are in the area, as well. The driver can choose to accept or deny the fare.

“The experience is seamless; it’s pretty awesome,” said Nick Mathews, Uber’s Boston community manager, who grew up in Topsfield.

While UberBlack leans toward high-end fares with luxury sedans, one of the company’s other divisions — uberX — allows drivers to use their own cars, covered by their own insurance and an umbrella insurance policy from Uber.

Uber says these drivers and their cars are inspected, and each ride is insured up to $1 million. But the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) considers Uber a serious threat to public safety.

Mike Fogarty, chief executive officer of Tristar Services and president elect of the TLPA, referenced an incident when a 6-year-old girl was killed in a car accident by an Uber driver on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. The ride-sharing company claimed that the driver was not employed by Uber at the time because he did not have a passenger.

Fogarty said that is one difference between Tristar and Uber; his company is responsible for its drivers whenever they are on the road, in a company car, not just when a passenger is on board.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened; it’s a wake-up call for vehicles that (practice) for-hiring service,” said Fogarty, whose Tristar limo company has an office in Beverly.

He also questioned Uber’s insurance policies and tactics in not using livery licenses for uberX drivers, which he said creates an “unfair competitive advantage.”

The North Shore service will hit as far south as Lynn, Melrose and Marblehead and reach up to Topsfield, Andove, and South Hamilton, according to a service map on the company’s website.

For Cape Ann, UberBlack will cover most of Gloucester west of the Annisquam River, including Magnolia, with the city cutoff line being Atlantic Street. The company is also now covering much of Essex and Manchester.

Mathews said Uber drivers are carefully chosen, and the company works with those who are already livery or limousine drivers so they can pick up fares in their downtime by partnering with local limousine or livery companies using their cars.

“You could leverage our platform to get more jobs in your downtime,” he said.

He said Uber drivers go through thorough background checks — on par with Massport’s airport transportation service — and Uber makes efforts to ensure the company’s independent drivers know the area.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-675-2708.