Raleigh, N.C. — Less than three weeks after a South Carolina college student was kidnapped and killed after hopping into a car she thought was the Uber she had summoned, North Carolina lawmakers are considering ways to make ride-sharing services safer for passengers.
Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, on Tuesday introduced a bill that would require Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services to have better markings on their cars, including an illuminated sign that riders could clearly pick out at night.
"This is the least intrusive step to secure public safety," Bell told members of the House Transportation committee, noting that he's open to consider other ideas such as front license plates that riders could check as the ride-share vehicle approaches.
A similar proposal recently passed the South Carolina legislature.
Rep. Mary Belk, D-Mecklenburg, admitted that she recently jumped into a car without a second thought after requesting an Uber and noted that vehicles with Uber and Lyft stickers "are lined up outside Charlotte bars" on most nights, ready to drive off with people who likewise don't take the time to make sure they're in the right vehicle.
"Personal responsibility is certainly part of this. You do need to identify your driver. You do need to identify your car," Bell agreed. "[But] bad people are going to do bad things … [and] if we can deter one person from getting hurt, it's worth it."
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Still, Uber lobbyist Nick Juliano pushed back against the proposal, saying that more signage might create "a little more certainty" about the identity of drivers in the minds of ride-share passengers, but it also could lull them into a false sense of security.
"We're concerned that people aren't relying on the app for [driver] verification," Juliano said. "We don't believe that it's a silver bullet that's going to enhance safety."
Illuminated signs such as the ones Bell proposes can be purchased online by anyone who wants to impersonate an Uber driver, Juliano said.
Uber's opposition prompted an angry response from Bell, who noted that Uber touts its "Beacon" program of illuminated signs as a safety feature on its website.
"What are you doing to stop it?" he demanded from Juliano about any corporate attempts to crack down on lookalike signage and fake drivers.
Bell cited media reports that Uber receives 1,200 complaints from riders a month, a large portion of which involve assaults by drivers.
Lyft's main problem with Bell's proposal, according to lobbyist Megan Sirjane-Samples, is that the legislation makes illuminated signs mandatory. She said the company would prefer to make the signs a choice in case the company develops better methods to promote rider safety.
"There is no best business practices because it's a free-for-all," said Rep. Jamie Boles, R-Moore, adding that unregulated ride-share services have pretty much replaced regulated taxis in most markets across the state.
Other lawmakers suggested requiring LED signs inside ride-share service vehicles that display a passenger's name or using wireless signals to sync up a passenger's phone so it's easier to identify which approaching vehicle is the correct one.
Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, said the state also might need to pass legislation making it a crime to impersonate a ride-share driver.
The committee didn't vote on Bell's proposal, and it likely will have to pass several committees before it reaches the House floor.