Uber
Popular ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft are planning on releasing technological upgrades to ensure rider safety. Until then, riders need to learn how to stay safe with the current apps. (Image via Variety)

College students across the country use Uber or Lyft to get around. Car breaks down? Call an Uber. Live, work or study in the city? A Lyft can be a lot easier than hailing a taxi.

Twenty-one-year-old Samantha Josephson was a political science major at the University of South Carolina and was no different than any other student — that is, until she went missing this past March. She was found murdered by a man posing as an Uber driver, and investigators discovered that the child-safety locks were engaged so Josephson couldn’t escape.

Sydney Ford, a fellow student of USC and a friend of some of Josephson’s, said she was terrified when she got into a Lyft the day after her classmate was found murdered.

“I felt so much fear just thinking about what she went through when she realized she was in a car she couldn’t get out of. I had five other people in the car with me, and still felt like I needed to get out,” she told Buzzfeed.

The incident sparked a nationwide discussion about safety, not only in demands for technological upgrades, but a growing effort from law enforcement and ride-sharing companies to warn passengers about entering a vehicle without first checking that the vehicle and the driver are legitimate, such as by matching the information provided in the app with what they see.

Ford started a petition asking Uber and Lyft to adopt QR codes. Ford explains that by scanning a QR code on a passenger-side window, riders can quickly verify whether they’re getting into the right vehicle. It would also help the driver make sure they’re picking up the right person.

“I spoke to my Lyft driver this weekend who also had stories to share about people intentionally getting in his car who aren’t passengers in an attempt to get money or get a ride somewhere,” Ford wrote.

Uber intends to include push notifications that will remind passengers to make sure they’re getting into the right vehicle, while Lyft will provide color-changing lights to help passengers make sure they’re in the right car. Although these are common-sense safety measures, there are ways to stay safe in the meantime and at all times.

Here are five ways to stay safe while riding with Uber or Lyft.

1. There’s safety in numbers

The most common rule of thumb is never ride alone, especially in the front seat. Hitching a ride alongside a friend or two is a safe bet. Riding with friends is something Steve Kardian, a former detective and current security expert who specializes in women’s safety, advocates for —although he realizes it is not always an option.

“In a perfect world, it would be great if we all did the ride share with somebody else. When you get into a car with a stranger — and that’s basically what you’re doing, both in a taxi and both in an Uber or Lyft — you’re giving them isolation and control,” he said.

Not everyone has a friend on call or in the moment to share a ride with, so opting for a carpool service — such as UberPool or Lyft Shared — is a viable option. Sharing rides is a practice Stockton University student Rae Hemple hardly deviates from. She says, “I always trust that within groups that I’m fine. Beyond that, I don’t take many precautions.”

But even carpooling has its drawbacks. Although Uber informs you of your co-rider’s name, those you share a ride with are just as much a stranger as the driver. Cheyenne Baiocco, another student of Stockton University, said after an unpleasant experience with a passenger she now avoids carpooling.

Even though riding with passengers is ideal, there are plenty of ways to protect yourself when you’re going solo.

2. Pay attention to the details

Uber and Lyft both offer the driver’s license plate number, as well as their vehicle’s make, model and color. So, before getting into any car, make sure all the details match, including the license plate number in accordance with the number provided in the app.

Rachel Orden is a 22-year-old student from Michigan State University who doesn’t take any chances when she calls an Uber. She immediately walks to the back of the vehicle to cross reference the license plate number with her app, and it’s this small detail that caught the attention of Josephson’s parents. Nineteen states don’t require a front license plate, unlike New Jersey, Josephson’s home state.

“When the car is pulling up you can’t see the front license plate. I’m not saying to change all the states and make it mandatory, but if you’re going to be in the ride sharing industry, then you should have a front license plate,” Josephson’s father told ABCNews4.

Orden doesn’t stop at a license plate though. She waits for the driver to say her name and devises a plan. “How could I get out? Could I unlock the door? Who do I have on speed dial? Could I jump out safely if I needed to? All that goes through my mind,” she told York Daily Record.

After the death of Josephson, checking to see whether or not the child safety locks are engaged is a critical step.

3. What’s my name?

Don’t just wait for the driver to tell you your name, ask who they’re picking up before getting in. Kardian recommends opening the rear passenger-side door when asking and entering the vehicle once you feel it’s safe.

Students at the University of South Carolina launched the #WhatsMyName campaign, urging riders to ask their drivers “What’s my name?” to ensure they’re getting into the right vehicle.

After Josephson’s death, USC President Harris Pastides wrote to his students, “Asking ‘What’s my name?’ must become as automatic for you as putting on a seatbelt in your own vehicle.”

4. What’s your name?

Although the “What’s my name?” movement has taken root, don’t forget that Uber and Lyft provide you with driver details, including the driver’s photo and name. So beyond checking the driver’s face, ask them for their name, even when you’ve asked them “What’s my name?”

Kardian says a common mistake riders make is asking the driver if their name is the one in the app and mentioning the rider’s name, instead of asking what their name is.

5. Share the Details

Although Baiocco never carpools anymore, she always shares her ride with her mother or boyfriend before getting into an Uber or Lyft.

The Uber app allows you to share your status, which means it will send your driver’s name, photo, license plate and location to a friend or family member. Lyft users can send an ETA, which is a text message sent to family or friends “with a link to your current route and location.”

You can even open the map in your app to follow the route to your destination, making sure your driver doesn’t take any odd turns or is driving in the opposite direction.

In case your ride doesn’t offer a status share or ETA link, you can always take a picture of the vehicle’s license plate and even the driver (or any necessary details) and send those photos to a family member or friend. Kardian says it doesn’t hurt to “Put him on notice that somebody else knows that he’s with you” and even recommends calling someone at your destination so the driver knows someone is expecting you.

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