Politics & Government

SC could require tag numbers on front of Uber, Lyft cars after USC student’s slaying

A proposal to require light-up signs on Uber and Lyft vehicles in South Carolina was scrapped Tuesday in favor of displaying license plate numbers on the front of those cars.

The S.C. House of Representatives passed the proposal earlier this month in response to the death of Samantha Josephson, a 21-year-old senior at the University of South Carolina who police say was murdered by a man she mistook for her Uber driver. A panel of senators revised it Tuesday on the recommendation of the popular rideshare companies, which said checking license plate numbers is the best way to verify rides during pickup.

Since the March 29 tragedy, S.C. lawmakers have filed a handful of proposals aimed at preventing S.C. riders from stepping into the wrong car during Uber or Lyft pickups.

But Uber and Lyft have cautioned lawmakers against passing a new law that could do more harm than good.

Requiring illuminated signs on Uber rides, for example, could provide opportunities for imposters like Josephson’s alleged killer since the signs can be purchased as cheaply as $5 online, Uber’s senior manager of public policy and communications, Trevor Theunissen, told the Senate panel Tuesday.

Theunissen said riders also could rely too heavily on the signs as proof their ride has arrived, neglecting to do more important verification steps such as checking the car’s model, the driver’s name and the license plate number.

“We’re playing right into the hands of criminals,” Theunissen said of the bill that passed the House.

A representative for Lyft, meanwhile, testified that light-up signs are a good safety feature in addition to those steps. But they shouldn’t be required by law, even though Lyft rides already have them, Lyft Public Policy Manager Megan Sirjane-Samples said.

A Senate panel Tuesday took their advice, scrapping the House bill, H. 4380, and replacing it with a proposal to require rideshare drivers to display their license plate numbers on the front of their car as well as the back.

The S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles does not make front-end license plates. But Uber and Lyft drivers could use vinyl stickers or make their own signs to display their tag numbers on the front of their cars or the windshield, state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said.

McElveen said he purchases similar stickers to put on the front of his boat. As the bill is written, it would be up to individual drivers — not the rideshare companies — how and where to display the tag number on the front of the car.

“It’s better and more unique than a sign,” McElveen said of the tag numbers. “You can’t fake a license plate number that quickly.”

The original bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Seth Rose, said he is OK with the change, even while noting the light-up signs could have helped a rider determine whether a car could be his or her ride during pickup.

“One being able to decipher (whether) a car may be their rideshare from a distance is an important first step in the verification process,” the Columbia Democrat said. “I believed illuminated signage being used elsewhere with success was a good start, but we are happy to see the bill moving.”

Senators Tuesday also removed Josephson’s name from the bill, formerly known as the Samantha L. Josephson Ridesharing Safety Act, because of a 2017 Senate rule that blocks bills from being named after people or animals.

Lawmakers said they enacted that rule because they were made to feel guilty for changing or defeating proposals named after tragedy victims.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.