President Pastides speaks to reporters.

Three words to help avoid the tragedy of mistaking a killer's car for your Uber

“What’s my name?”

These three words have the power to save lives and must become as automatic to every college student getting into a ride-hailing vehicle as putting on a seatbelt. The policy would probably be worthwhile for anyone who uses ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, but I have a particular, and urgent, reason to try to persuade college students to make “What’s my name?” a habit.

Samantha Josephson, a student at the University of South Carolina, where I am president, was buried last week, the victim of a senseless crime that tears at the heart of every parent and has shaken me and our university family. The death of any student is hard to comprehend, but that is especially true of Samantha, a 21-year-old senior who was majoring in political science, eager to commit herself to helping change the world.

According to police here in Columbia, S.C., Samantha ordered an Uber to pick her up at 2 a.m. on March 29 in the Five Points district, a nightlife area near campus, and mistakenly got into a black Chevrolet Impala, thinking it was her ride. A heartbreaking surveillance video released by law enforcement officials shows the vehicle pulling up beside her as people walk past; Samantha opens the door, slips into the back seat and closes the door. The same scene, of trusting young people getting into ride-hailing vehicles, no doubt played out countless times near college campuses early that Friday morning all over America.

Later that day, hunters found Samantha’s body, about 70 miles away in rural South Carolina. Police said she had been stabbed to death. They soon made an arrest, charging the suspect with murder and kidnapping.

What happened to Samantha was not the first time that someone has mistaken a vehicle for a ride-hailing pickup and then been attacked by a driver who seemed to be prowling for victims. The New York Times on April 4 reported on “a rash of kidnappings, sexual assaults and robberies carried out largely against young women by assailants posing as ride-share drivers.” Publicly reported cases indicate that there have been “at least two dozen such attacks in the past few years,” the paper said.

In South Carolina, lawmakers have introduced the Samantha L. Josephson Ridesharing Safety Act, which would require ride-hailing drivers to display illuminated signs when their vehicles are in service, and to turn off the sign when off-duty. Any steps to improve safety are welcome, but illuminated signs for ride-hailing companies can be easily purchased online.

In recent days, I’ve heard from many students, public-safety officials and parents, including Samantha’s own family, about the importance of ride-hailing safety. We have discussed many ways to improve the transportation options for students, including traveling in groups on nights out.

For ride-hailing safety, students should first ensure that the license plate, make, model and color of the vehicle match the details provided by the app used to hail the ride. But I think one of the best safety measures of all would be for customers, every time they use a ride-hailing service, to stop before entering the vehicle and ask the driver plainly: What’s my name? A legitimate driver will have that information; someone with criminal intent will not.

As a college president for more than a decade, I recognize that the exuberant and trusting nature of our students — characteristics that make them such wonderful people — also make them vulnerable targets for those who seek to do harm. On campuses across the country, administrators have put great effort into safety programs, including education about drugs and alcohol. Ride-hailing safety information is a new frontier, but I urge my fellow administrators to devise a program and put it into practice as soon as possible.

The country has witnessed the power and effectiveness of other public-health and safety campaigns, such as those regarding smoking and the use of seat belts. The campaigns work and have saved countless lives. A new safety campaign — and not just for college students — is needed as ride-hailing gains in popularity. We owe it to Samantha Josephson.

As published in The Washington Post on April 8, 2019.

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