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Uber, Lyft become legal in Westchester County

Westchester County won’t be able to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft beyond the state law, which goes into effect this week. But that won’t stop county lawmakers from trying.

The county has decided not to opt-out of the New York state law regulating ride-hailing companies outside of New York City.

Although Uber and Lyft drivers have frequently taken fares within Westchester over the last few years, they have done so illegally, as neither state nor county law has permitted it. That is set to change on Thursday, June 29, after press time, when a new state law overseeing ride-hailing becomes official.

But some, including County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, have criticized the state law for not having the same safety regulations as are required by the law which has allowed ride-hailing in New York City since 2011.

Uber Policy Director Josh Gold discusses bringing the company’s services to Westchester County. Photo/Corey Stockton

“When the new state regulations came out a few weeks ago under the Department of Motor Vehicles, that failed to give Westchester County residents the same protections as New York City, we had to take action to try to fix this kind of problem,” Astorino said at a press conference with Uber and Lyft representatives on Tuesday.

Ride-hailing in New York City is overseen by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, TLC, which requires all drivers to be fingerprinted. But the law in the rest of New York state puts those regulations in the hands of the state DMV, which will not require drivers to be fingerprinted.

“But in Westchester, because we border New York City… we of course wanted to go a step further and create a system that included fingerprinting for drivers in Westchester County,” Astorino said.

With that in mind, county and ride-hailing officials created “Thumbs Up,” a voluntary program in which interested drivers would get fingerprinted by the county and then be added to a pool of approved drivers for ride-hailing, taxi or limousine services. Drivers whose fingerprints are clean would also be awarded a decal from the county, verifying that those drivers have been vetted by Westchester. The process would cost $90 to drivers and, according to the county executive, would be completed in three days or less.

Astorino asked the ride-hailing companies to integrate the Thumbs Up program into their apps, allowing users to see beforehand whether their driver has been fingerprinted before ordering the car. Neither company committed to that policy in the short term, adding that the deal was new and they were considering their options.

In the meantime, Astorino said, users will have to decide when their car arrives whether they feel safe entering a car based on the presence of a Thumbs Up decal or lack thereof.

But those companies will have to address the question of cancellation fees, which are normally charged to users who solicit a ride through the app and then turn a driver away. When asked if Uber would charge a cancellation fee to those who turned down a ride because a driver did not have a Thumbs Up decal, Josh Gold, Uber policy director, said, “That’s something we’ve already started looking into and that’s something we’d probably not want to happen.”

Astorino said that the Thumbs Up program is the first in the nation, and that he hoped the county would set an example for the state, influencing a rewrite of the new ride-hailing law. “We also hope that this will spark a conversation around the state, and ultimately will lead to the state amending the law again that would permit and require fingerprinting across the state,” he said.

In the meantime, county Legislator Michael Kaplowitz, a Yorktown Democrat and chairman of the Board of Legislators, lambasted the state for forcing the county to either opt out or participate under the state’s rules. “Because of New York state, we are now in a shotgun marriage,” he said. “And I’m disappointed in Uber and Lyft for not wanting to start off this marriage in a better place, but I’m hoping in fact that we can make the best of a situation that is potentially starting out with difficulty.” He added that he would not hesitate to initiate an opt-out process if ride-hailing companies did not continue to work to promote safety in the county.

Ride-hailing companies were legalized across the state as part of New York state’s 2017 budget, which was passed in early April. As part of that law, municipalities with 100,000 residents or more had the option to participate in the state’s program or to opt out of it, but not to draft a separate law regulating those companies. The state DMV released its regulations on June 6, which did not include a fingerprinting requirement.

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