Government probes vehicle-hire apps

As Uber makes Hong Kong bow, checks will be made on the legality of services that pair passengers with drivers - with a focus on vans

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 4:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 4:02am

The government is "monitoring" the growing use of smartphone apps for passengers to arrange vehicle hire to ensure they comply with the law, a senior official told lawmakers yesterday.

Undersecretary for transport and housing Yau Shing-mu told members of the Legislative Council's transport panel that the use of such apps was a "growing trend".

His comments came in the week US-based Uber launched its private-hire service in the city. But much of the concern yesterday focused on apps that allowed passengers to book a ride in a light-goods vehicle. Drivers of such vehicles are not allowed to charge passengers, though a person who hires a van to transport goods can ride in the vehicle.

"The operation of those apps that facilitate the hiring of cars needs to comply with the law," Yau said.

"We are now closely monitoring the apps available on the market to see whether any of them have breached the law.

"But the operation of some apps is [legally] blurry, so both the Transport Department and the police are looking at them, carrying out investigations and seeking legal advice."

Police Chief Superintendent Paul Stripp said most apps were operated and used legitimately, "therefore it is unlikely we will be able to secure evidence to support prosecutions against the operators of the applications".

They were responding to a question from lawmaker Gary Fan Kwok-wai, of the NeoDemocrats, who asked whether app operators could be in breach of the Road Traffic Ordinance over the use of light-goods vehicles.

Under the ordinance, it is an offence to "solicit or attempt to solicit any person for hire or reward" to travel in such a vehicle. The penalty is a fine of up to HK$5,000 and up to three months in prison for a first offence, with the maximum fine and sentence doubled for subsequent offences.

Charles Chow Ching-yuk, who founded EasyVan, which launched its van-hire app in December, said the government should make clear whether app operators would be legally liable for any breach of the ordinance.

"The purpose of our app is to provide a forum for users to find the van service, and we don't charge drivers or users," said Chow, adding that he had yet to decide how to generate income from the service. "What I want is to make the app popular before thinking of generating income."

Uber, which launched in Hong Kong on Thursday, has attracted controversy overseas, as taxi drivers say it is able to provide a taxi-like service without the fare restrictions and other rules applied to licensed taxis.

Meanwhile, the panel meeting heard that 52 people were arrested for drink-driving - similar to the number in the same month last year. There had been concerns that the soccer World Cup would lead to more drink-driving cases.