Politics & Government

Killing of college student inspires proposed rideshare rules in NC

What Uber, Lyft riders can do to stay safe

To help keep riders safe, Uber has published tips that a ride-share passenger can do to stay safe.
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To help keep riders safe, Uber has published tips that a ride-share passenger can do to stay safe.

Drivers for rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft would need to be at least 21 years old and display their company logo and vehicle’s license number on the front where passengers can easily see them, under a bill introduced in the state House on Tuesday.

The bill, known as the Passenger Protection Act, would also make it a crime to impersonate a rideshare driver and allocate $100,000 for an awareness campaign aimed at college students on how to identify legitimate Uber and Lyft drivers. It would also launch a study that could result in additional proposed regulations next year.

Rep. John Bell IV introduced the bill in the wake of the killing of University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson, who in March got into an unmarked Chevrolet Impala she thought was her Uber ride home in Columbia. Police arrested the man they said was the driver of the Impala and charged him with kidnapping and murder.

“This is a public safety issue,” Bell, a Republican, told members of the House Transportation Committee. “And this is our attempt to address it here in North Carolina.”

After USC student Samantha Josephson was killed after getting into a car she thought was her Uber ride, the company is rolling out new safety features in the app.

When a customer summons a ride using Lyft or Uber, the app will display a photo of the driver, the make of the car and the license number. But because North Carolina doesn’t have front license plates, riders must walk around to the back of the car to verify the number, Bell said. The bill gives drivers some flexibility in how they display the license number in the front, requiring only that it be “printed in a legible font no smaller than the font of the license plate on the vehicle.”

The company logo would need to be visible from 50 feet away during daylight hours and be illuminated so it can be seen at night.

Bell’s bill originally did not propose to raise the age for rideshare drivers. But Rep. Marcia Morey of Durham introduced an amendment to change the minimum age from 19 to 21, noting that state law already requires taxi drivers to be at least 21.

The change concerned some members of the committee, who wondered how many 19- and 20-year-olds drove for Lyft or Uber to supplement their income.

“To provide a source of income for a 19-year-old that might be using it to supplement — I don’t like the idea of denying that,” said Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, who suggested legislators study the issue first. “What you might end up finding is that you might go into the taxi law and say, ‘well, you guys can do it at 19 as well.’”

But Morey, a Democrat, declined to withdraw the amendment, which passed 12-8.

“The purpose behind this is safety and the more experience you have as a driver,” she said. “I think if you look at the statistics with speeding and unsafe driving, it occurs more with older teenagers.”

Representatives of both Lyft and Uber say their companies already set a minimum age of 21 for drivers.

Lyft supports the Passenger Protection Act, company spokeswoman Campbell Matthews said in an email. “Safety is fundamental to Lyft, which is why we have worked hard to design policies and features that protect both drivers and riders,” Matthews wrote.

Uber backs some of the provisions, including the requirement that license plate numbers be visible on the front of the car. But the company thinks requiring the logo, which it refers to as “trade dress,” might make it easier for someone to impersonate a driver, particularly if riders simply look for a sign rather than the information on the app.

“We appreciate efforts to strengthen safety, and our hearts remain with Samantha Josephson’s family and loved ones,” company spokeswoman Evangeline George said in an email. “We hope to continue working collectively with legislators to put safety first, helping riders match a car’s license plate to the license plate number displayed to them in the app and addressing some safety concerns we still have about the current trade dress language in the legislation.”

The bill would make it a misdemeanor to impersonate a rideshare driver, either verbally or with a sign or logo. Impersonating a driver while committing a felony, such as kidnapping or assault, would be treated as a Class H felony, punishable by up to 3 years and 3 months in prison.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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