Uber's Iowa footprint, but not state regulation, grows

Ride-hailing service and Iowa City still talking

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Gazette staff

Although Uber already operates in Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities, Des Moines and Ames — and perhaps may someday expand to Iowa City — the Iowa Legislature has yet to adopt any statewide regulations for how such ride-hailing services operate.

Last year, the Iowa House passed insurances rules that failed in a Senate committee. This year, Rep. Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, introduced legislation in the House to try again.

But her bill covers insurance requirements only — not the issue of background checks on drivers, which this week was receiving renewed scrutiny after police say an Uber driver shot and killed six people in Kalamazoo, Mich., apparently while still looking for passengers.

The Michigan incident comes two weeks after Uber settled a class-action lawsuit out of California for $28.5 million that accused it of exaggerating the safety of its background checks.

“Last year (background checks) were part of the discussion, but the bill I brought forward was all agreed-upon language at the national level between Uber and the insurance companies,” Pettengill said Monday. “Before the wheels fell off the bus on the agreed-on language, I wanted to get it voted on.”

Her bill, HF2219, would set minimum insurance requirements for Uber and similar ride-hailing services.

Unlike traditional taxi services, Uber drivers using their own vehicles connect with passengers on a smartphone app. Prices are not regulated and can change depending on demand. The company says it has its own insurance requirements and background check processes.

Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Uber essentially is operating in Iowa on an unregulated basis — although Des Moines did adopt its own rules.

“I’d like to move forward with something, so I’m glad the House is doing something,” he said. “We’ll see what they bring over and I’m sure if we like it will move it. If not, we’ll try to improve it.”

The Des Moines ordinance, in part, allows the city to audit the companies to make sure they are complying with provisions on insurance, background checks and vehicle inspections.

But as Iowa City moved forward with enacting several regulations to both ride-hailing and traditional taxicab companies, Uber said it would steer clear of entering the market.

The city established an application process with identification cards and unique color schemes - only for taxicab companies. Uber officials said the regulations would greatly hinder its operations.

An Uber representative did not return a message for comment Monday, but that’s not likely to be the end of it in Iowa City.

“We have continued discussions with Uber representatives regarding city regulations as they relate to transportation network companies,” Simon Andrew, assistant to the city manager, said in an email. “We hope to present complete information to City Council soon and get their direction on how to proceed. The City Manager is very supportive of bringing the ride-sharing model to Iowa City.”

James Q. Lynch, Rod Boshart and Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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