How to stay safe when ridesharing

After several scary situations, people are asking how to stay safe when using rideshare apps


Photo by Flickr user Helen Floersh, used with permission

Abby Bauerla, Staff Reporter

University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson was murdered after getting into a car she thought was an Uber. She was outside waiting by herself and may have been under the influence of alcohol. Surveillance video showed the 21-year-old get into a black Chevy Impala police suspect she took for an Uber.

She was later found dead by turkey hunters in a rural area, about 40 feet off of a dirt road.

This prompted others to tell their own frightening Uber tales, as well as raise concerns on taking rides from rideshare apps like Uber.

Should I Worry About This Happening To Me?

Michael Hutchins, Uber driver and assistant professor of german and international studies at IU Southeast, says to not let big stories like Josephson’s make you fear too much.

“Don’t panic about highly-publicized incidents in Uber rides,” Hutchins said. “Most Uber rides are really boring and uneventful. You are almost sure to get there safely.”

Hutchins reminds drivers of one thing that helps ensure safety.

“The driver has a compelling incentive to keep you happy and safe: money,” he said. “If you are not his passenger, or if he does something to endanger you, he is not getting paid. He is most likely getting fired, or arrested, or both.”

However, Hutchins recognizes that there are people who fake being Uber or Lyft drivers. He says there are certain times of the year when that number spikes; one of them coming up in less than a month.

“This happens sometimes during the Derby week, because a large number of informal (i.e. illegal) taxis, shuttles and ride services crop up to take advantage of the large crowds looking for transportation,” he says.

Riding Alone

There are things you could be doing that could be make you more susceptible to unsafe situations.

“Most passengers are alone, probably 90 percent,” he says. “And at certain times of the day, almost all passengers are under the influence. That’s why they’re taking an Uber. With the exception of Derby week, I drive almost exclusively at night and in the very early morning, so most of my passengers are inebriated and alone.”

Riding alone can make you vulnerable to potentially dangerous situations, especially if you are inebriated. It can be more difficult to make sure you get to your destination safely, and make it tougher to defend yourself if something were to happen.

If you have to ride alone, make sure your friends know where you are going, how long it should take for you to get there, and let them know when you arrive. Keep them on Facetime or on the phone so that you have someone there with you without physically having them there with you.

The best thing you can do is communicate with others what you are doing so that they can help you if something goes awry.

It Happens Here Too

Stories like Josephson’s are happening closer to home too. College students like Ashleigh Smith, a senior studying biology and pre-medicine, are going through similar situations. Luckily for Smith and her friends, they were able to escape unharmed.

Smith said she and her friends left a bar a couple months ago and were looking for an Uber. An Uber driver approached them, but it was not their assigned driver.

“He asked us if we wanted a free Uber ride,” she said. “One of my friends almost got in, but I said ‘no thank you’.”

Afterwards, she said they found their actual Uber driver and told her what had happened. Their driver said this was not the first time that specific driver had faked being an Uber driver and offer women free rides. The driver also told her the phony driver had previously been reported for sexual assault.

Even after the incident, Smith took action to prevent this from happening again. As soon as she got him she says she reported him.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

How Can I Prevent This?

Josephson’s incident has raised questions of how to be safe and ensure you are getting in the right vehicle.

“I think the most important thing to remember is to check the license plate and name of the driver,” he says. “Especially at busy venues, where there may be a dozen drivers named Michael, for example, it is important to make sure that the Michael picking you up is your driver. The license plate is a sure-fire way to establish this.”

Hutchins also suggests to ask the driver for the name of the passenger that they are looking for. He also says that both Uber and Lyft require drivers to use real photos of themselves and they conduct ID checks to ensure drivers are complying with the safety procedures.

“So if you glance at your app and see that the driver looks dramatically different from his profile pic, there is a problem. Don’t get in the car” said Hutchins.

Is there a way to tell before getting in the vehicle?

Hutchins says each vehicle has signs so you can be sure you are getting in a vehicle that is a part of the rideshare you are using, but make sure the signage is official.

“Never take a ride with someone who is not an official, liveried taxi or who does not have official Uber/Lyft logos in the passenger-side lower corner of the windshield,” he said. “Kentucky and Indiana regulations require this at all times when the driver is logged on taking passengers. A printout or handwritten sign is not only illegal, but also a huge red flag.”

Getting into the right vehicle is the starting point to making sure you get to where you are going safely. Do not be afraid to pull up up your phone and follow the route to ensure you are being taken on the right route.

“A second tip for getting home safe is to know your route,” he said. “Pull up the map on your phone and pay attention to where the driver is taking you. If it looks like he’s taking you very far off the expected route, ask why.”

If something seems off about your driver or the route take action. Action does not necessarily mean going straight to calling 911 though, there are multiple ways to get help or make sure you have evidence if something were to happen.

“If anything else seems fishy, but you don’t feel like calling 911 just yet, at the very least start recording the ride on your phone. Get the driver to talk—ask him questions that can help authorities identify him if they need to, such as where he lives, what his full-time job is, etc. You can even send this to a friend if things get dangerous.”

Hutchins says friends should also know what is going on before things get dangerous.

“Tell a friend where you are going and when you are leaving,” he says. “That way someone else has a chance of knowing where you were at a specific time and when approximately you were supposed to arrive somewhere else.”

Turning the Tables

While you may be concerned about the rider’s safety, drivers have to be concerned of their own safety.. They aren’t given a background check on you. The driver is focused on the route and getting you to your destination. Drivers also face harmful circumstances and must know how to protect themselves.

Michael says he has faced the fear and reality of multiple dangerous situations himself.

“I have had passengers verbally threaten me, try to physically assault me, grope me and twice I have had a passenger pull a gun on me,” he says. “You name it, it has happened, there is no way to be 100% safe as a driver.”

Michael has found multiple ways to try to ensure his safety. He says he has installed a dashcam, and he shares his location with his partner. He says he does not carry a weapon–one reason is Uber does not allow it. So if your driver is armed, let that be a warning sign.

When It Comes Down to It

“Both Uber and Lyft have tried to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen, but ultimately it is the passenger who is really responsible for making certain that their driver is who they claim to be,” he says. “And the truth is that there are hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers in this market, so if you have to pass on one who seems fishy, just do it.”

Hutchins says you could even get a refund if you cancel, and that cancelling is easy and definitely worth doing to prevent yourself from being in a dangerous situation.

“Seriously. Just cancel. A $5 fee is no reason to put yourself in an unsafe situation.” he says.

Whether you are a driver or rider, it is important to do all you can to stay safe while using a rideshare. Do not take advantage of just enjoying the ride. Look for red flags, and most importantly don’t be afraid to take action.