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Car services gain in popularity, bring up safety questions

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SPECIAL REPORT -- Looking to bypass the traditional taxi that may or may not be in the area to pick you up? There's an app for that.   

Some people around Boston use the car service app Uber often because they say it’s faster than hailing a cab, it’s reliable, and the drivers treat you well.

Uber started in Boston in the fall of 2011, according to Meghan Joyce, the General Manager of Uber Boston. She and her driver Mohamed Noor recently picked me up in one of their top of the line rides to talk more about the service that's now in 100 cities around the globe.

Joyce and Noor demonstrated how the app works. After downloading the app from your smartphone’s app store, you can register with your name and credit card information. When you open up the app, you can see the various drivers in the area and how long it will take them to get to where you are.

Next, you tap a button, and the driver will drive to your location. Users will see the driver’s picture, their name, their make model of the car, the license plate number so you know exactly who you're getting in the car with.

Riders should be aware, Uber is not regulated like cabs, and that lack of regulation has critics concerned about a number of things including price and passenger safety.

Some wonder how people can be assured their driver is not someone who has had some type of conflict with the law in the past or perhaps drug and alcohol abuse, or been a Level Three sex offender as Boston Police Commissioner William Evans has questioned.

“We're proud that Uber has the strictest background checks in the industry,” Joyce said. “Anyone who wants to use our software on any of the products needs to go through our full suite of background checks which includes a mutli-state check a county check and a federal check. We have a zero tolerance policy for any drug, alcohol or sexual offense and the driver needs to come back with a clean bill of health in order to even access our software.”

But with several recent assaults from taxis in our city, and safety still a big concern, we reached out to Commissioner Evans for further comment. He declined. But Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr did send us this statement:

"This is an emerging mode of transportation that, like other forms of transportation, needs to be safe and accountable. While government shouldn't try to prevent it from being a viable option, it should ensure that those who depend on it can trust it in the same way as other options."

Joyce said she thinks Evans was misinformed when he made his statements about Uber.

“Uber has the highest background checks standards in the industry.  We are incredibly proud of that and require that of any driver that comes on to the system,” she said. “Since then Mayor Walsh has been incredibly supportive, Governor Patrick has been incredibly supportive and has welcomed this new innovating technology with open arms. They know access to reliable, affordable transportation is not only a wonderful thing for not only riders, but also an incredible economic opportunity for drivers and so both the city and the state have welcomed this technology with open arms.”

Mohamad is a former taxi driver who's been working with Uber for more than a year. He said that Uber has been a refreshing change from his days behind the wheel of a cab, and that he and other drivers don't want to ruin a good thing.

“You take the client from point a to point b and you just begin and end and at the end of the week, on time you have your money coming to you and it's your just peaceful and you don't worry about you know getting ripped off or anything. You have a vested interest because this is your vehicle,” he said.

Which leads to another concern: How safe is the vehicle you're riding in?

“Not only the driver, but the vehicle needs to be registered and so we require full documentation of insurance and registration in addition to the driver's license and background check information,” Joyce said.

And what about price? For some, they don’t mind that it can be pricier than a regular cab, because it comes with the convenience.

For sure, Uber cab is comparable to other cabs, but once you step up to Uber's various cars, the prices rise as well. Still, customers have come to expect that. What they don't like is the company’s "surge pricing" during peak hours. That can double, triple even quadruple a rate and beyond especially during bad weather like snowstorms.

“When we're in a moment of surge pricing, that's notified in the app and you have several opportunities either accept that higher pricing or decide that you'd rather pass,” Joyce said. “We also have a new option called surge drop that allows you to just tap a button and get a push notification when surge ends in your area and that way you can wait until surge stops.”

Joyce explained the surge pricing as an incentive to make sure drivers were still available in times when  demand is high.

“In times when demand exceeds supply, we need a bit of extra incentive to encourage drivers that use our software to get out on the road or stay out on the road,” Joyce said. “It's the very moments that we don’t want to be driving either late at night or during bad weather that drivers don’t want to be out either, so that extra incentive insures that they come out and they stay out.”

So like any growing technology there are glitches and resets along the way, but no matter if you love it or loathe it, it appears Uber is here to stay.

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