Slain college student's family fights to improve rideshare safety

#WHATSMYNAME Foundation partners with Uber and Lyft to teach college students about rideshare safety

The family of a 21-year-old college student who was kidnapped and killed last year after climbing into a car she thought was her Uber ride is working to make sure that no one else falls victim to a similar circumstance.

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The man accused of killing Samantha Josephson in South Carolina is still waiting for trial, but her parents, Seymour and Marci Josephson, have wasted no time campaigning to improve rideshare safety. They founded the #WHATSMYNAME Foundation last year in order to educate rideshare passengers, and the group announced this week that it was partnering with Lyft and Uber in order to reach more students on college campuses across the U.S.

“[Samantha] wanted to go to law school to help people,” Seymour Josephson said. “She was a person that just cared about other people and just wanted to help people.”

Samantha Josephson (#WHATSMYNAME Foundation)

Following her death, Josephson found he’d suddenly been given a platform as he spoke at vigils in South Carolina, where Samantha attended school, and New Jersey, where the family lives, and the story gained international attention.

“It just took off,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it, it was just her, and how can I help make change and not have this happen to anybody else again. That was our – Marci’s and mine – big inspiration.”

The foundation has even used Samantha’s nickname – Sami – to help make its message easy to remember: “Stop, Ask, Match, Inform.” Verifying the information available through rideshare apps, including the driver’s name and the make, model and license plate of the vehicle, with those simple steps can help rideshare users keep themselves safe.

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They have made signs and literature to remind college students on campuses in multiple states. The group is also working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to add signs in NYC-area airports, Madison Square Garden and public transit stops, according to Josephson.

“We just found that if we can have something out there and just put it in front of people as a reminder, and use Samantha’s name … it really resonates,” he said.

Separately from the foundation, the family has been working to pass new laws that protect rideshare passengers. Several states have already backed legislation inspired by Samantha Josephson, and Seymour Josephson said their local congressman, Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, is helping them draft legislation with input from a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers.

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During that process, Seymour Josephson said, he met Uber and Lyft representatives to collaborate on a future bill that wouldn’t draw opposition from the industry. He used those contacts to help the foundation work with Uber on its latest project.

“Uber wanted to join forces and create safety in education, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Josephson said.

Uber said it has made efforts to improve the safety of its platform already: Last year, it rolled out an optional four-digit PIN system to ensure passengers match with their drivers.

Tracey Breeden, head of women’s safety at Uber, said in a statement that “what happened to Samantha Josephson was an unspeakable tragedy and something that no parent or family should have to go through.”

“Together working alongside colleges and cities, while leveraging education and technology, we can all help create safer communities,” Breeden said.

A driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his front windshield drops off a customer in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

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Lyft has also worked to improve safety, increasing the visibility of plate numbers in its app and sending push alerts to remind passengers to verify vehicle information.

Jennifer Brandenburger, Lyft’s director of public policy for community safety, said in a statement that the company is proud to team with the Josephson family and foundation to “amplify ridesharing safety education on college campuses nationwide.”

The companies are valuable partners because they already have relationships with many colleges, while Josephson said the foundation’s materials provide exactly what colleges need.

“All the colleges went into a complete panic [following Samantha’s death], because they didn’t have anything,” he said.

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The foundation helps colleges create designated rideshare safety zones near dorms and Greek life housing with the “SAMI” signs, Josephson said. While some efforts have been temporarily hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, the couple also attend conferences and make safety presentations for student groups to emphasize the steps to take before entering a stranger’s vehicle.

The partnership will help the foundation reach more than 100 additional student groups, according to Lyft.

“The last thing you want to do is get into the car and have what happened to Samantha,” Josephson said. “Because once you get in the car, it’s too late.”

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