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Lyft and Uber Face Scrutiny for Accidents

The sharing economy is booming here in San Francisco, and city-dwellers with and without cars are increasingly relying upon ride-share companies such as Lyft and Uber to get around. These ride-share companies have undeniable appeal: for reasonable prices, customers are able to consolidate resources while having a genuine interaction with a reliable driver.

But what happens when those drivers turn out not to be so reliable after all? In the past month, San Francisco has seen two terrible crashes involving drivers working for each of the two aforementioned companies. On New Years Eve, Uber driver Syed Muzaffar, 57, of Union City, was arrested for hitting and killing 6-year-old Sophia Liu as she was crossing Polk and Ellis streets with her mother and brother. Then, two days ago, a Lyft driver with a passenger in the car hit an older woman near Jackson and Larkin streets in the Nob Hill neighborhood. The accident victim was taken to San Francisco General Hospital to be treated for a leg injury.

First of all, if you haven't realized this already, San Francisco has a pedestrian accident problem. In 2013, there were 21 pedestrian fatalities in San Francisco, the most since 2007. Despite the city's efforts to make improvements to pedestrian problem areas, the numbers are going up and show no signs of stopping. In light of this, it is more than distressing to think that the city's ride-sharing companies are contributing to -- not alleviating -- this significant public safety problem.

Ride-share services have become a viable alternative to taking taxis, much to the chagrin of taxi drivers across the country. But in the case of an accident, ride-share insurance policies differ greatly from those of taxis. Uber, for example, provides a $1 million insurance policy to drivers, but only when they are actively providing a ride and not when they are in between rides. In contrast, taxis are required to have full insurance at all times. The New Years Eve accident involving the Uber driver occurred when the driver was between rides, and so Uber has claimed that it cannot be held liable for the tragic death of Ms. Liu.

San Francisco taxis are now lobbying the government to require the same insurance of ride-share companies as is required of taxis. Of course, from the perspective of taxi drivers, this is a financial issue as well as a public safety issue, because Uber's ability to not provide insurance at all times may give the company an unfair financial edge. Still though, the taxis have the right idea here. Even if a taxi is between rides, that taxi is still considered to be in operation and still poses the same potential hazard to pedestrians and other drivers on the road. At least in my eyes, a ride-sharing service such as Uber is functionally no different, and thus should be subject to the same insurance laws as taxis.

But there is yet another issue that arguably makes Uber drivers and Lyft drivers even more dangerous than taxis. Uber and Lyft drivers here get their fares from their cell phones which they need to check all the time when on duty. Taxi drivers generally get their fares by dispatcher over the two way radio. Attention to hand held cell phones while driving is dangerous and for that reason, illegal. As we all know, it takes but a second of inattention to seriously injure someone else or yourself or both. I should say, as most of us here know, taxi drivers too are often seen scanning their cell phones.

In the wake of these accidents, this has become a question of corporate and social responsibility more than merely a question of marketplace advantage. Will these ride-share companies do the right thing and step in to help make things right for accident victims? Or will they continue to exercise an unfair -- and unsafe -- advantage over San Francisco's taxis? Leave your opinion in the comments section.

Scott Righthand is a San Francisco accident attorney.

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