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Uber safety bill is overhauled by South Carolina lawmakers

FILE - This Tuesday, June 12, 2018, file photo shows the Uber app on a phone in New York. Uber on Thursday, April 18, 2019, said that it is releasing a new feature to help riders ensure they’re getting into the right vehicles. The development comes several weeks after a University of South Carolina student was killed after getting into a car she had mistaken for the Uber ride she hailed. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After the slaying of a college student who police say mistook her killer’s car for her Uber ride, lawmakers in South Carolina are tinkering with legislation that aims to improve safety for ride sharing customers.

A Senate subcommittee voted Tuesday to scrap a requirement for a lighted sign passed two weeks ago by the House and instead require drivers to display their license tag numbers on a sign on the front of their vehicles.

Uber requested the change. Company spokesman Trevor Theunissen told the senators that Uber sends the driver’s tag number to the customer, and it would be nearly impossible for a fake driver to duplicate it, unlike the lighted company signs that can be found for sale online.

Uber customers are much better off depending on safety features the company controls in its app, like sending the license tag number, make, color and model of the vehicle than depending on an external sign, Theunissen said.

The push for the legislation came after police said 21-year-old University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson of Robbinsville, New Jersey, got into what she mistakenly thought was her Uber ride after a night in Columbia’s entertainment district.

The fake driver had the back seat child safety locks on so Josephson could not escape, killing her and dumping her body in the woods 65 miles (105 kilometers) away.

A 24-year-old suspect, Nathaniel David Rowland, has been charged with kidnapping and murder in the case.

“If we train consumers to look for outside verification of the safety of a ride, we are playing right into the hands of the criminals,” Theunissen said. “We need to be training them looking at their app and verifying the license plate and the information we provide.”

Uber is also backing Josephson’s parents and friends at the university creating a campaign called “What’s My Name.” The push reminds Uber and Lyft customers to require the driver to say their name before getting into the vehicle as well as checking the license plate and other information sent to them through the app.

Uber has started sending push notifications to riders in South Carolina reminding them to check the driver’s name, photo, license plate number and vehicle make and model just before their ride arrives and plans to expand those notifications nationally, Theunissen said.

The front license plate sign was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Thomas McElveen of Sumter. He said he understood where the House was coming from with a lighted sign that could be seen from some distance away. But he said with some reflection, a front license plate sign made more sense.

“I like a simple fix,” McElveen said.

South Carolina doesn’t require front license plates for all vehicles, and to require them would cost millions of dollars. Lawmakers also don’t want to have the Department of Motor Vehicles to print more than one plate with the same number because of the possibilities of fraud.

So the drivers would be required to create their own signs that would need to have letters and numbers at least 2 inches (5 centimeters) tall.

Since the Senate is changing the bill, then the House will have to vote on whether to accept the changes. The sponsor of the House bill said he thinks the front license plate sign is a good idea, but he hopes the Senate restores the lighted sign too. The House bill requires drivers to return the signs when they stop working for their companies or give a signed statement why they can’t.

“In a perfect world, we would do both,” said Democratic Rep. Seth Rose, whose Columbia district includes where police said Josephson was kidnapped.

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