Uber tightens up on driver safety but loopholes remain

Uber driver Harpul Kang with one of two American visitors he drove from Auckland to Wellington. Some saw him as a hero, others as the poster boy for drowsy driving.

Uber has introduced a new driver safeguard, as flagged by its New Zealand general manager Richard Menzies during his recent NBR View interview.

The measure sees Uber’s contract drivers logged out of its app for at least 10 hours, once they reach the NZ Transport Agency’s maximum of 13 hours driven in a day.

Uber says drivers will be logged out of its system for “10 hours of continuous rest.”

Some will put their feet up. But given they are contractors rather than staff, Uber has no direct control over how its drivers spend their time when not logged into its app.

And indications are that many of its drivers are taking jobs from more than one app, and are constantly multitasking over long driving days.

Home-grown Uber rival Zoomy, for example, recently told NBR it has 2352 drivers signed up, and counting. Chairman Ben Unger says most Zoomy drivers also do work for Uber; some also drive for a budget taxi company on top of that. The drivers mix and match between services, turning off Uber's app if a higher-paying Zoomy or taxi job pops up.

The issue of driver drowsiness hit headlines last year when Uber contractor Harpul Kang drove an American couple from Auckland to Wellington overnight to allow them to arrive in time for an 8am meeting after missing their plane.

Mr Kang had already worked a full day in Auckland. By his description of events, he had driven 16 and a half hours during a 24-hour period.

The couple called the Uber driver a "hero," and motoring writer Clive Matthew-Wilson told NBR Mr Kang was a great advertisement for New Zealand, who had gone beyond the call of duty. In comments, many readers agreed.

Nevertheless, not all marathon driving efforts have such a happy outcome.

The NZ Transportation Agency says that in 2016, fatigue was identified as a contributing factor in 28 fatal crashes, 119 serious injury crashes and 438 minor injury crashes.

The agency investigated Mr Kang but after seven weeks it was unclear if any action would be taken. It now says his passenger license was suspended, but he was not prosecuted. A spokesman could not immediately confirm a timeframe, or confirm if it was an open-ended suspension until Mr Kang reapplied.

Uber itself was not investigated as it was not a registered small transport operator. A law change has since brought the ride-sharing company explicitly under the NZTA.

Digital log books
The NZTA also requires drivers to take a 30-minute break after every five hours of driving.

A spokeswoman for Uber says drivers are required to follow all NZTA guidelines, and to record their driving hours in an app called Logmate.

The new measure to log drivers off for 10 hours after they hit the 13 hours in a day limit is on top of Logmate tracking.

Uber gives drivers a prompt to take a break at the seven-hour mark, and sends alerts as the 13-hour mark approaches.


RELATED VIDEO: Grant Walker interviews the general manager of Uber's New Zealand operation, Richard Menzies (May 28)

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