Consider a world in which your morning commute and the afternoon drive to drop your children at soccer practice each required a separate license from your state government. In addition to your state-issued driver’s license and the already-mandated vehicle-safety inspection, you would also need to undergo an additional inspection to earn permission for one year to drive your car with other passengers inside.
The notion sounds far-fetched, but is essentially what would be required of drivers for ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, under a bill that passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives  last week in a 139-16 vote. The measure now heads to the state Senate.
While there are legitimate concerns about minimum insurance standards for ridesharing companies and they effectively screen out drunken, reckless and criminal drivers, it bears pointing out that distinguishing between “drivers who are capable of safely driving themselves” and “drivers who are capable of safely driving others” is not something we typically see applied in any other part of our lives. Attempts to broadly codify such a restriction would no doubt generate considerable and very vocal protest.
There are, of course, other issues with the Massachusetts bill. Drivers would also need to undergo not one, but two separate background checks and place state-issued decals on both the front and back of the vehicle (decals issued by the companies themselves would be insufficient). Moreover, the legislation seeks to limit use of “surge pricing” and the Legislature would fund a newly created “Ride for Hire” office with new fees calculated based on ridesharing companies’ revenues within the state.
To be fair, the Massachusetts bill is far from the most egregious example of a government regulating ridesharing services. Many of the provisions adopted by states around the country have been similar to Massachusetts’ proposals. For instance, it requires the now-standard $1 million liability policy to cover any period from the moment a driver is hailed until he or she drops off the passenger at a destination. Nonetheless, while the Massachusetts bill largely inhabits a reasonable middle-ground, a troubling theme runs through the legislation.
Though a second safety inspection might not seem onerous, at first glance, it is worth asking whether those proposing this particular provision, among others, are truly doing so out of a concern for citizens’ safety. Is the Commonwealth’s standard safety inspection truly so lacking that it can’t be used to determine whether a car is suitable to carry other passengers? If so, surely an immediate, statewide overhaul of vehicle-inspection standards is in order. Does an additional inspection truly have a life-saving impact? Likewise, why are two separate national background checks necessary for prospective drivers? A few helpful clues within the legislation might be instructive in determining the motivation behind these seemingly duplicative requirements.
One provision added to Gov. Charlie Baker’s original, more reasonable package is a rule prohibiting ridesharing services from picking up customers from Boston’s Logan International Airport. That privilege would belong solely to the taxi companies whose unions strongly lobbied for exclusive access to the airport. Obviously, such restrictions serve no public-safety purpose, nor do they establish the sort of level playing field cab unions so fastidiously claim to desire. Instead, they are anticompetitive provisions that serve only to favor an entrenched special interest group that happens to have friends within the Legislature.
Suspicions of ulterior motives appear to be confirmed by some state officials’ comments. When asked about efforts to regulate ridesharing, Massachusetts Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Daniel Bennett seemed to take pride in the fact that the application process to become a driver for a ridesharing service would be burdensome and time-consuming. “You’re not going to immediately get your license to be a ride-share person,” The Associated Press quoted him  saying, while noting that he had not actually seen the legislation in question.
Thus, much of the motivation derives not from a desire to protect the public or promote parity, but to find seemingly any restriction that would make it even slightly more difficult for ridesharing services to conduct business. If our goal is regulatory frameworks that foster innovation and open competition, we must not abide those who would use the legislative process as a club with which to cripple competitors.
- “passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives”: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2016/03/09/massachusetts-house-approves-ride-hailing-services-bill/kYBb0CvBermADaeyUgl19M/story.html
- “quoted him”: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2016/03/04/uber-bill-calls-for-background-checks-fingerprinting/p8ghJRFkE7sloU0FwZFYQI/story.html