Uber shuts down service in Bay County after PCB driver arrest


PANAMA CITY BEACH — Ride-sharing service Uber suspended operations in Bay County over the weekend after Panama City Beach Police arrested a driver for operating a taxi without a permit.

The company, which uses a smartphone application to connect riders and drivers, launched service in the area in December, but only recently began seeing a demand for the service with the arrival of Spring Break.

Matthew Gore, general manager of Uber Florida, said although the company has received pushback from municipalities in the past, he was shocked to hear a driving partner was arrested for providing the service.

“Every city, every county does things differently and we respect that, but I think there’s a better way to do this,” Gore said. “I think putting a driver in jail is pretty overly aggressive. … It’s unprecedented.”

To utilize Uber’s services, customers download the smartphone application, create an account with payment information, and thencan access a map of available vehicles in the area, complete with the driver’s profile and vehicle description. Drivers are required to be age 21 or older with a good driving record and clean background check, and drive a vehicle less than 10 years old. Uber also carries $1 million in liability insurance, which covers all registered drivers.

Gore maintained Uber is not a taxi or limousine service, but rather a technology company, and said outdated state and local transportation regulations do not address the differences between ride sharing and other vehicles for hire.

“Ride sharing is not a taxi; it’s not a limousine; it’s absolutely a new industry that needs a new set of rules,” said Gore, adding some Florida cities are now exploring ways to define and regulate ridesharing companies like Uber and competing company Lyft.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, also filed legislation earlier this year addressing “transportation networking companies,” which would allow Uber to operate legally in the state.

“These tourists are coming to Florida from places where Uber is a way of life,” said Gore, adding that the service helps cut down on drinking and driving. “People make smart decisions when they’re easy, and Uber makes smart decisions easy.”

Users trying to access the app in Panama City Beach on Monday were prompted with a link to contact the mayor and show support for Uber.

“Tell the mayor that Uber helps prevent DUIs,” the message read. “Spring Break in PCB will be  safer for everyone if Uber is there.”

PCB responds: While Uber’s stance has remained it is not a taxi company, Panama City Beach City Manager Mario Gisbert said if the company collects money for providing rides, it falls under the city’s vehicle-for-hire regulations.

Panama City Beach taxi ordinances require all vehicles for hire to be marked, registered and inspected by the Panama City Beach Police Department. Drivers also must carry proof of insurance and complete a background check through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“If they did it absolutely for free, I would absolutely agree, but they are a vehicle for hire,” Gisbert said. “They receive monetary compensation for providing a service.”

Gisbert said he has had conversations with both the police chief and city attorney and all are in agreement that Uber falls under the vehicle-for-hire rules.

“They are allowed to operate here under the beach, but they have to operate under the same regulations as the cab companies,” said Gisbert, adding that those who do not follow the rules will be cited. “Our mechanism is citations, notice to appear; the last thing we want to do is arrest anyone.”

However, Pensacola resident Aton Bakhtiarov was arrested Friday at the Summit Condominiums on Thomas Drive after passengers identified him as an Uber driver. Bakhtiarov was charged with operating a taxi without a permit and booked in the Bay County Jail.

The Panama City Beach Police Department threatened Uber driver Walter Ball with arrest while picking up a ride outside the Coyote Ugly Saloon during the first week of Spring Break.

Ball, a retired Mobile, Alabama, resident, signed up to drive for Uber to make a few extra dollars. He said the company requested he head to Panama City Beach due to overwhelming demand for Uber’s services.

“I only lasted two nights,” said Ball, who packed up and went back to Mobile after the incident. “If I would have known what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have come.”

Before Uber suspended service, Ball said the company was guaranteeing drivers would make between $15 and $22 an hour during Spring Break. But even with the guaranteed compensation, Ball said it would be cost-prohibitive for drivers to pay the fees to register through the city.

“They have made it to where it’d be just impossible to operate,” he said of Panama City Beach. Uber “did an extensive criminal background check on me and a driving record check. If the police are going to say it’s a safety issue, or this or that, I just don’t buy it.”

While Panama City Beach continues to be inundated with Uber ride requests, officials said Uber has not posed any problems in Panama City and unincorporated Bay County.

County spokeswoman Valerie Sale and Panama City Manager Jeff Brown said the agencies are looking toward cities like Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville to see how ride sharing is addressed.

“I’m interested to see what they come up with and see if they can work with Uber on some standards,” Brown said.

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