Uber is making its UK drivers work slightly less insane hours

No sleeping on the job.
No sleeping on the job.
Image: Reuters/Simon Dawson
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Uber is imposing new limits on its UK drivers, requiring that they take a six-hour break after 10 hours of accepting and making trips with passengers. To be sure drivers follow the rule, the company will keep them from logging into the Uber app during their rest periods.

“While drivers only spend an average of 30 hours a week logged into our app, we want to do our part to ensure they don’t drive tired,” Andrew Byrne, Uber’s head of policy in the UK and Ireland, said in an emailed statement. A third of Uber’s UK drivers log more than 40 hours a week, and 8% put in more than 60, the company told officials last month.

The new policy, which takes effect next week, is unusual because the company has rarely worried about its drivers, or proactively implemented policies for their well-being. Telling drivers they must take breaks also undermines one of Uber’s favorite talking points, that drivers can be their own boss and set their own schedule. Under the new policy, they’ll have a little less freedom and a little less flexibility.

There’s little specific precedent for Uber’s action. In the US, the company caps the hours its drivers can work in a handful of places, like New York and Chicago, but it has no blanket policy designed to keep exhausted workers off the road. Last year it fought a proposal to limit drivers to 16-hour days in Massachusetts, calling the rules “overly burdensome.” Uber’s top US competitor, Lyft, by contrast, tells drivers they “must take a six-hour break for every 14 hours you’re in driver mode” to keep the experience safe.

Uber’s decision may be explained by the string of setbacks it’s faced in the UK and Europe. In September, London’s transport authority declined to renew Uber’s license to operate private-hire vehicles. In November, a British employment tribunal said Uber drivers should be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. In December, the EU’s top court ruled that Uber should be classified as a transportation service and regulated like other taxi operators.

Europe has always seemed most likely to call Uber on its many bluffs. Challenges to the ride-hailing company’s business model have made more progress there, thanks to stronger worker protections, and regulators are generally less impressed by Uber’s talk of technology platforms and disruption. European cities have also forced greater operating concessions from Uber, and repeatedly banned its “Pop” service (similar to UberX in the US). In London, regulators cited safety concerns in declining to renew the company’s license, and Uber has been attacked by trade groups who claim its drivers work too much.

To be sure, no one wants to get in a car with driver who hasn’t slept in a day because they were chasing the surge or going after a quest, or whatever other incentive Uber threw at them. It would be great if concern for rider and driver safety were what motivated Uber to announce this new restriction. But its concern about regulators seems a lot more likely.