Non-cabbies offering paid rides may need to be licensed to safeguard commuter interest: LTA

SINGAPORE - Drivers who run chauffeur services under ride-booking apps such as Uber could soon be required to obtain a vocational licence which is currently compulsory only for taxi drivers.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) yesterday said it is looking into removing this exemption, as a way to ensure the safety of passengers taking private-hire rides.

In a forum letter published in The Straits Times, the LTA said chauffeured vehicle services have become more accessible to the public with technology and, given the industry's recent growth, it is studying possible measures to safeguard commuter interest.

The taxi industry cried foul recently, following news of ride-matching apps and rental companies working together to run their own fleet of "taxis".

The rental firms lease out cars to drivers at a rate cheaper than taxis. Hirers then use these vehicles to fulfil bookings from apps such as Uber and GrabTaxi.

These companies and drivers, however, do not have to meet the stringent requirements imposed on the taxi industry, such as vocational training.

The LTA did not say whether a licensing requirement would apply only to drivers who do chauffeuring via apps or to the entire industry, which includes corporate charters and limousine services.

Nor did it elaborate if it would affect drivers who use their own vehicles to provide paid rides.

Uber drivers told The Straits Times that the time and money required to take a vocational course will be an extra burden.

Uber driver Sam Samioen Moksam, 50, said: "Passengers rate drivers after every trip, and this already ensures we provide a safe and reliable ride.

"Falling short can earn a driver a temporary ban or, in a worse case, (lead to his contract) being terminated."

Another driver, Mr Yu Kim Reed, asked why vocational licences are being implemented now, given that chauffeur services have been around for so long.

"The only difference is that a (car hire) call centre has been replaced by the Internet," Mr Yu, 30, said.

National Taxi Association executive adviser Ang Hin Kee said a driver rating system cannot fully replace vocational training, refresher courses and medical examinations which taxi drivers have to undergo.

Mandating vocational licences will be a "welcome start", but he said rental car firms and transport apps should also abide by other requirements that taxi companies are subjected to by the LTA.

These include ensuring their fleets are regularly maintained and serviced.

App companies said they are willing to work with the LTA should vocational licences be required.

Uber's Singapore general manager Yaniv Goder said it hopes to be "included in the consultation process".

A GrabTaxi spokesman said it is in discussions with industry partners to develop a "comprehensive curriculum for private-hire drivers" and that it will encourage drivers to take up vocational licensing.

Cabby Henry Tay, 45, said vocational licences will help the authorities keep track of drivers and offer passengers assurance of a safe ride.

"We don't want any Tom, Dick or Harry picking up passengers, do we?"

adrianl@sph.com.sg