Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is proposing new city regulations for rideshare companies operating in the Capital City, including measures that would require rideshare vehicles to be inspected by the city and drivers to be registered and, possibly, fingerprinted.
The mayor's proposal comes after the March killing of 21-year-old University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson, who got into a car in Five Points that she reportedly mistakenly believed to be her Uber ride.
Benjamin, the third term Columbia mayor and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, made his intentions about the proposed regulations known in a recent letter to constituents.
"Our hearts are still hurting as we mourn the loss of Samantha Josephson, a University of South Carolina student who was abducted and slain after getting into what she thought was an Uber," Benjamin wrote.
The mayor says he supports several rideshare safety recommendations that have been made by Josephson's parents, including requiring rideshare drivers to have a license plate on the front of their vehicle (an idea that also was pitched by Democratic state Rep. Todd Rutherford) and requiring rideshare drivers to have a QR code on their car windows so riders can scan it with their smartphone to assure that it is the appropriate vehicle.
Aside from those measures, Benjamin also proposes:
— Requiring all rideshare vehicles to be inspected for safety by the City of Columbia. The vehicles would have to have a decal to prove they have been deemed safe, and would be subject to random inspection. Drivers also would be registered and — per the mayor's proposal — "potentially" be fingerprinted.
— Deeming that no rideshare can operate with the child locks engaged on the passenger doors unless a child is present and parents have given consent.
— Stipulating that no rideshare driver may operate in the city if they are on bond for domestic violence or any crime that carries a penalty of more than a year.
— Stipulating that rideshare cars must use a designated pickup point if they are within 150 feet of that pickup point.
The mayor is also proposing that a member of the city's GIS department work with rideshare companies to come up with "creative technological solutions" for pickup locations specifically in the city's entertainment districts, like Five Points.
Some of the measures Benjamin is recommending, such as having vehicles inspected, have already been undertaken in other locations, such as the state of California.
And the idea of fingerprinting rideshare drivers has proven controversial in other cities and states. For instance, in 2018 Uber threatened to leave Houston if the city didn't curb fingerprinting practices. Meanwhile, in 2017 regulators in California ruled that rideshare drivers would not have to be fingerprinted, even though taxi drivers in that state are required to do so.
Traditional taxi cabs in the City of Columbia already are subject to a host of regulations and rules, including annual vehicle inspections and more.
Free Times has reached out to Benjamin in regard to which city department would administrate the proposed rideshare changes, including car inspections and driver registration.
At-large City Councilman Howard Duvall says he wouldn't be surprised if the rideshare proposals are at least brought up for discussion at Council's first meeting in May.
"I think the list of things that the mayor has presented are open for discussion," Duvall says. "Some of them will probably be adopted. I do think we need to consult with the rideshare companies. They have been very cooperative after the tragedy down in Five Points. We need to listen to them and get their points of view on some of these things, too. They are just as concerned as we are in providing a safe environment to people who use their services."
At about 2 a.m. March 29, Josephson was in Five Points when she got into a car, a black Impala, that police believe she thought was an Uber ride. It was not. Josephson’s body was later discovered by turkey hunters in a remote area of Clarendon County. Law enforcement officials have said she had numerous "sharp force injuries." Nathaniel Rowland, 24, of Clarendon, has been arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder in the case.
Subsequently, Democratic state Rep. Seth Rose filed a bill that would require rideshare drivers to have an illuminated sign identifying the company they are with. Republican state Rep. Micah Caskey co-sponsored that bill. On April 9, Rose's measure passed by an overwhelming 99-1 margin in the House. The bill is now in the state Senate's Transportation Committee.
Also, earlier this month a group of bars in the Five Points nightlife district signed what they call a "Safe and Sound Pledge," saying they will make door staff available after closing time to accompany customers to their rides.