MPP John Fraser introduces anti-Uber bill

Saying he wants to crack down on unlicensed taxis, Ottawa South MPP John Fraser introduced a bill Wednesday that would drastically toughen punishments for people caught driving “bandit” cabs.

Fraser’s bill would:

  • Raise maximum fines from $500 per offence to $30,000
  • Give three demerit points per offence (the same as driving the wrong way on a highway or running a stop sign)
  • Allow authorities to suspend drivers’ licences and impound cars for second and subsequent offences

If it becomes law, the bill would give cities such as Ottawa tremendous power to drive out companies such as Uber, the rapidly expanding American operation that lets anybody sign up to drive passengers for money in a private car. Fraser co-ordinated his bill with Bay Coun. Mark Taylor, who has chaired the city council committee that regulates the taxi industry.

Taylor praised the bill and said he’ll ask the province for the power to appoint special constables (special officers with limited police powers, like those who patrol the transit system) to monitor the taxi industry.

Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod immediately complained that Fraser had stolen thunder from a similar bill she was planning to introduce on Thursday.

Uber says it’s a technology company, just mediating transactions between willing customers and freelance drivers. As far as the city is concerned, it’s an illegal taxi brokerage and its drivers are bandit cabbies. The city has run stings and charged Uber drivers since Uber started operating here in September, but it has limited power to punish them: a capital investment last summer valued Uber at $17 billion US, so a $500 fine wouldn’t be much to a company willing to spend some money to fight its way into a new market.

Despite the city’s efforts, Uber’s smartphone app showed half a dozen cars ready for passengers’ orders in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon.

A $30,000 fine and the power to suspend licences and seize cars would change the terms of engagement.

“Uber welcomes consideration of sensible regulations that seek to codify expanded transportation alternatives and ensure public safety,” Uber spokesman Xavier Van Chau said by email. “We are concerned, however, that this private member’s bill seeks to throttle innovation and wrongly group companies like Uber under this legislation.”

He also produced a letter, sent from Premier Kathleen Wynne to the City of Ottawa when she was transportation minister in 2011, saying the provincial government’s lawyers didn’t think impounding bandit taxicabs was constitutional.

Illegal taxis, which have operated more traditionally with business cards taped to pay phones in the ByWard Market and by word of mouth, can be popular. Proponents say they’re cheaper and more readily available and are driven by friendlier and more knowledgeable drivers than licensed cabs.

On the flip side, they don’t have guaranteed prices, their drivers won’t have passed the city’s background checks, and they’re not likely insured as commercial vehicles in case of crashes.

“This legislation is about protecting passenger safety, which is paramount,” Fraser said in a written announcement. “Stiffening penalties for driving illegal cabs provides municipalities with the enforcement tools they need to address the serious safety concerns surrounding illegal cabs.”

His is a private member’s bill, not legislation officially backed by the government, and these only sometimes become law. Often they get bogged down in committees (particularly if, as with Fraser’s and MacLeod’s separate bills, two pieces of legislation are trying to do the same thing) and never come to final votes.