Hong Kong should amend the law to legalise Uber
Crackdown on drivers has little deterrent effect; instead, a way must be found for car-hailing services to provide a safe and legal ride for passengers
Uber is in the news for the wrong reasons again. There is no argument that the popular car-hailing service has weighed into the city’s taxi market without a legal footing. The police therefore cannot be faulted for launching yet another crackdown. But punishing the drivers will not force Uber out of business. The undercover operation by the police is the biggest yet, with 22 drivers arrested over the past three weeks. They are facing charges of picking up passengers without a hire-car permit and third-party insurance. The action was necessary because a recent court ruling on Uber drivers had failed to have deterrent effect, according to a police source. The five drivers in that case were each fined HK$10,000 and banned from driving for one year. Appeals are underway.
The crackdown however appears to have had some limited effect. Some bookings were reportedly cancelled by drivers, apparently due to fears of arrest. Others sought to raise charges in the wake of the legal risks involved. But these could be just knee-jerk reactions. By matching drivers with passengers via an easy-to-use technology platform, Uber has successfully revolutionised taxi services. It has attracted more than 30,000 drivers in Hong Kong and has served one million passengers over the past three years. The threat of punishment is unlikely to dampen business in the long run.
It would not be surprising if more crackdowns follow. Officials may want to make clear through arrests and prosecutions that Uber remains unauthorised under the current transport regime. It may even think that it could kill off the trade if no drivers dare to join. But so far only a handful have been arrested or punished. The remaining tens of thousands in the fleet will still be tempted to stay in business. Customers are also unlikely to be deterred. There is no law that makes passengers liable, although the lack of third-party insurance remains a concern. This has to be resolved before the service can become worry-free to users.
Competition and technological advances mean Uber and other innovative businesses are here to stay. The government should make room within the law so that they can continue to serve people in a safe and responsible manner.