State lawmakers push for ride-share safety bill after USC student’s death; suspect’s parents speak out

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Lawmakers in South Carolina plan to introduce legislation to require ride-share vehicles to display illuminated signs in the wake of the death of a USC student who got into a vehicle she believed was her Uber.

The bill would attempt to address an issue fundamental to how Uber and Lyft function. Whereas taxi cabs are required to be painted certain colors or have noticeable markings, the appeal of ride-share apps is that drivers can use their own vehicle to make money.

On Tuesday, South Carolina Rep. Seth Rose and co-sponsor Rep. Micah Caskey plan to file the "Samantha L. Josephson Ridesharing Safety Act" bill to make it easier for riders to identify Uber and Lyft vehicles.

Josephson, a 21-year-old student at the University of South Carolina, had called for an Uber around 2 a.m. Friday in Columbia outside a bar. She was last seen getting into a black vehicle that was not her Uber. Her body was found with multiple sharp force injuries 14 hours later in a field about 90 miles away, authorities said.

Police arrested Nathaniel Rowland on murder and kidnapping charges after an officer saw him driving a vehicle that matched the one seen in the surveillance video. Josephson's blood was found in the car's passenger side and the trunk, and her cell phone was in the passenger compartment, authorities said.

The ride-share apps have a number of safety features that provide checks for riders so that they don't get into the wrong vehicle, as happened to Josephson.

For example, the Uber app informs the rider of the make, model and color of the vehicle, the license plate number and the driver's name and photo. Uber and Lyft also allow drivers and riders to text or call each other, and riders can send their trip information and location to friends during the ride.

Under current South Carolina law, ride-share drivers are required to have reflective stickers.

What other campuses have done

The issue of fake Uber drivers is particularly acute on college campuses, full of tech-savvy students who often use Uber and Lyft as a way to get around, especially when drinking alcohol.

Uber said it has been working with police and college campuses to address this issue.

"Since 2017, we've been working with local law enforcement and college campuses across the country to educate the public about how to avoid fake ride-share drivers," an Uber spokesperson said. "Everyone at Uber is devastated to hear about this unspeakable crime, and our hearts are with Samantha Josephson's family and loved ones. We remain focused on raising public awareness about this incredibly important issue."

Several college towns, including Columbia in the past few days, have taken steps in the wake of violent incidents.

Since Josephson's death, Columbia Police placed fliers with safety tips for ride-share and taxi rides onto the windows of businesses in the city. The flier highlights a specific drop-off and pick-up zone, and advises riders to cross streets at crosswalks, put down their phones and avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

In an interview with CNN, Rose noted that USC currently holds a University 101 class for students that offers a crash course in what to do and what not to do in Columbia. He plans to send a formal letter to USC's president and board of trustees asking them to incorporate ride-share safety advice into that course.

"I think every place across this country, every university, needs to take note that this is a real danger and we need to take precautions to educate everyone that this is a possibility," Rose said.

Florida Gulf Coast University had a similar reaction after an alleged assault by a fake Uber driver in August 2017. In that case, a female student mistakenly got into a car she believed was from a ride-share service, university police said, and the driver then allegedly assaulted the student.

The university said officials speak on a regular basis with students, including at orientation, about the importance of personal safety.

"We encourage them to adopt the buddy system with their friends to minimize a criminal's opportunity to exploit a situation like we believe happened in this case you referenced," the university said in a statement.

"At the time the crime occurred, our University Police issued a reminder to all students and employees to carefully confirm the make, model and license plate of a private transportation company's car to make sure they are getting into the right vehicle."

In November 2017, police said a man posing as an Uber driver sexually assaulted a woman on American University's campus, according to CNN affiliate WJLA. DC Superior Court records showed that the victim and her boyfriend had flagged down the suspect and paid him in cash, WJLA reported, and the assault allegedly occurred after the boyfriend left the vehicle.

Court records show that the vehicle did have an Uber sticker visible, according to WJLA.

An American University spokesman said they have a number of safety features and advice for students taking ride-shares.

"We advise students to follow the safety policies of the ride-share services, including using the app to call and identify an authorized driver, rather than relying on a window decal," the spokesman said.

"In addition, AUPD offers a safety app called Rave Guardian that can be used in the District of Columbia. Rave Guardian has an emergency icon for Campus Police and Local Police Emergencies depending on on- or off-campus use.

"Finally, AUPD offers a Safe Ride back to Campus program. If a student finds themselves stranded in DC for any reason, they can call a cab and have it take them to University Police headquarters. The student should notify AUPD that they are on their way by calling 202-885-2527. AUPD will pay for the cab and place the charge on the student's account, ensuring that even without money or a ride, students can always return safely to campus. This service can be utilized within a 10-mile radius of the main campus."

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