Josias Previlon never imagined that the state’s new restrictions on ride-hailing drivers would take away his livelihood.
He was among the first Boston-area cabbies to make the jump to driving for Uber, and he says he loved it. But in February, the state disqualified him from driving. He said that was because his driver’s license had briefly been suspended seven years ago for unpaid child support.
Previlon says he rectified the child support issue when it arose and moved on. “I never considered it a major issue for myself,” he said. “I was really shocked.”
Previlon was one of more than 8,000 drivers who have been blocked from driving under new state regulations that have taken hold. The new rules — which were agreed to in principle by the ride-hailing companies — are intended to ensure public safety. Obviously, that’s a vitally important goal.
But a growing chorus of critics believe that the regulations are ensnaring drivers whose histories don’t indicate a threat to public safety. And they fear that the regulations are disproportionately affecting low-income drivers.
Fortunately, they still have an opportunity to make their voices heard. The state’s regulations won’t be final until late this year. The critics are looking forward to beginning to make their case before Baker administration officials at a hearing next Tuesday.
The critics point to several rules they consider unfair. There’s no limit to how many years the state can review, raising the prospect of drivers being kicked off for old offenses. Another issue is that the regulations treat arrests that have been dismissed without a finding as de facto convictions, which is blatantly unfair. And while there is an appeals process — as of Tuesday, 476 drivers had successfully appealed — it is opaque. Even the drivers who have successfully been reinstated don’t really know why they prevailed.
So there is a groundswell of opposition that was not readily apparent when the rules went into effect.
“The point is, there are a lot of people whose livelihoods and economic participation are being eroded,” said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “People who are a threat to public safety should be knocked out. But instead of casting a narrow net, they cast a broad net.”
Williams said he has been flooded with calls from drivers asking for his advice in getting reinstated. “The bottom line is, how do we protect public safety without being Draconian?” The ride-hailing services are often portrayed as having agreed to the regulations, but that’s only partly true. They agreed to public safety regulations, as well they should. But they weren’t consulted on every detail. Uber officials, in particular, have insisted for months that the regulations punished drivers who haven’t done anything to deserve it.
It’s anyone’s guess how open the state is to changing the rules. Some find it encouraging that hundreds of drivers have been able to successfully appeal their bans — though they represent fewer than a third of the drivers who have appealed their disqualifications. The Department of Public Utilities, which has the task of enforcing the rules, has not tipped its hand about any possible changes.
“We’re hoping that the governor and the DPU will begin listening to the drivers,” said Tom Maguire, Uber’s general manager for New England. “This is the time to create a more just process.”
There’s no question that the need to protect public safety is paramount. No one supports allowing people with a significant criminal history to drive innocent customers. But there are good reasons to ban people, and illogical, knee-jerk reasons. It isn’t asking too much to expect the state to distinguish between the two.
In the meantime, people like Previlon are deprived of their livelihood. He found another job, but is desperate to return to his old work. “I’m a people person,” he says. “I miss my customers a lot.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.