[By Joe Brandt]
On the heels of a safety report accounting for more than 3,000 sexual assaults on rides in one year, the ridesharing app Uber rolled out a new security feature recently, garnering some praise from safety advocates as they stressed more could be done.
The new feature, first announced in December, allows a rider to add a four-digit PIN code that only their matched driver can enter.
When an Uber vehicle pulls up, a rider can tell the driver the PIN code, which the driver then enters into their app. The rider’s app will indicate if their PIN was used by the correct driver.
The changes are designed to better ensure riders are getting in the right car.
The update to the app spurred discussion of a notorious case involving a Mercer County woman killed after mistaking a man to be her Uber driver.
Samantha Josephson, of Robbinsville, was kidnapped and killed in South Carolina in March 2019 after she got into the man’s car.
Authorities said Nathaniel Rowland picked up Josephson March 30 in a Chevrolet Impala outside of a bar near the University of South Carolina, where she studied political science.
Rowland, who was not her driver, is accused of trapping Josephson in the car and killing her, later leaving her body in a wooded area.
The 21-year-old had plans to move back to the area and attend Drexel University’s law school in Philadelphia.
Her father Seymour Josephson, in a statement released from the office of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th Dist., said the PIN feature appears to be in line with some of the rideshare reforms they were seeking.
“I could only wish that it did not take Samantha’s death and our constant push to create these safety measures,” he said. “We ask, why wasn’t this done prior? Why did it take her kidnapping and murder for this to happen!”
A bill in the works, Sami’s Law, would encourage states to require rideshare drivers to identify their vehicles clearly with digital signage and scannable barcodes. States that didn’t would lose a portion of their federal highway funding.
New Jersey passed a law about this in June.
The federal bill, sponsored by Smith, has been in the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit since October 2019, Congressional records show.
A rideshare safety expert said the case “is an extremely tragic example of a bigger problem.”
“There are predators who search for victims and those predators have found their way into rideshare,” said Bryant Greening, a Chicago-based attorney whose firm, LegalRideShare, pursues personal injury cases against rideshare companies.
It’s more common to see instances of a driver robbing someone, or driving them to an ATM and ordering them to take out money, he said. But cases like Josephson’s capture our attention.
After that and a few other high-profile cases, companies were forced to react with innovation, Greening said.
In a few cities, Uber is testing a feature that records audio of drivers’ rides, according to a November report in The Washington Post.
And Lyft announced this week that it’s forming a safety committee, including law enforcement groups and members of the Rape, Incest and Abuse National Network (RAINN).
In the statement, Seymour Josephson said he wants to see other safety changes like requiring front license plates, which is one of the changes addressed in the federal bill.
And he wants to see other rideshare companies, not just Uber, make those changes.
“We have to applaud that they’re making efforts to create a safer environment,” said Greening. “But we’re still having people victimized in rideshare cars. And until that number is zero,” more work has to be done, he said.
Rowland is charged with murder and several other offenses in Richland County, South Carolina, court records there show. His proceedings have stalled, with the most recent court date listed in May 2019.