Uber driver Jayesh* tapped his phone just once when a police car pulled him over. A new trip had just popped up on the driver’s Uber app on his phone, which was mounted to his car. So Jayesh made sure he stopped at the traffic lights in Greensborough in Melbourne’s north-east, before tapping his screen to accept the trip. But the fact that his car was stationary, or that he was working as an Uber driver didn’t sway the police officer who handed him a ticket: a $484 fine and the loss of four demerit points. Jayesh is among tens of thousands of Uber drivers across the country who are frequently having to weigh up whether they should break the law to do their job.

Uber driver *Jayesh was fined for using his Uber app while driving. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui Drivers can legally use a phone while they are driving if it’s in a holder, but only for phone calls, music or GPS. Using a phone under any other circumstance is illegal even if the car is stationary (waiting at red traffic lights). The car’s engine must be switched off. This poses a problem for Uber drivers who are being offered new trips on the app while they are behind the wheel, and in many cases completing another trip. The company argues it is the drivers’ responsibility to accept trips legally, but drivers have 15 seconds at most to accept a trip before losing the job. Stopping a car within 15 seconds would be highly dangerous if the driver was travelling fast or on a freeway where there is no safe stopping area.
In many cases, drivers are forced to touch their phones when passengers add to or change their stops during their journey.

Jayesh accepts that he has broken the law. But he wants to know why Uber was given the green light to operate in Australia if tens of thousands of its drivers frequently broke the law to do their job. He is among other Melbourne drivers who are asking similar questions on online forums. “In simple terms, Uber wants me to use the mobile phone while driving,” Jayesh said. “If I don’t take these trips, I’ll miss out on work and my earnings will drop. I won’t make as much money. “Either the whole app needs to change, or there must be a provision for people who are driving ride-share vehicles to allow them to touch their mobile screen if they want to operate these apps legally.”

An Uber spokeswoman said drivers were independent contractors and were therefore not required to accept trips. The accessibility that comes with the phone app is a key feature of the ride-share company’s success. “We know that it is not uncommon for the average driver – not just those who use Uber’s platform – to use technology to help navigate their route,” she said. “We continue to work hard to ensure that driver distractions are kept to an absolute minimum. We remain focused on exploring ways to reduce driver distraction with the overall goal of sharing our learnings with all drivers on our roads.”

Taxi drivers also have to tap a screen when a new job appears on the despatch system attached to the car’s dashboard. But this system is exempted from the road rules, so police do not issue penalty notices to drivers accepting trips while driving. 13CABS’ general manager David Samuel said taxi drivers also won’t receive alerts about new jobs while they are completing a trip, which lowers the chance of them touching the screen while driving. He said the fact that taxi drivers did not have to use their mobile phones to do their work meant that taxi services were safer. “Our system is superior in terms of safety, and in very simple terms, our device fits within the law. “There is no law as far as I’m aware that says that you can’t accept the job, but the laws on mobile phones are very clear.” Commercial Passenger Vehicles Victoria’s chief executive Aaron de Rozario acknowledged that in the rideshare industry, “technology and the different ways people use technology has progressed faster than regulation”.

He said it was up to the transport companies to ensure that drivers were using their apps or other technology safely.

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