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Uber unveils new safety measures in wake of college student's murder

The ride-share company is rolling out new push alerts that will remind riders to check their Uber driver's photo, license plate and vehicle model.
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Uber is rolling out new features it says will keep riders safe, following the killing of a South Carolina college student who got into a wrong car she mistook for her Uber ride.

Tony West, Uber's chief legal and security officer, told NBC News in an exclusive interview that the company's app will push out an alert for riders to check the license plate, make and model of the vehicle — as well as the name and picture of the driver — to confirm it's the correct person picking them up. He said the Uber app will also prominently display new safety notifications.

The changes come soon after the murder of the University of South Carolina student, Samantha Josephson, 21, who was last seen March 29 getting into a car she thought was her Uber ride.

Samantha Josephson
Samantha JosephsonColumbia Police Department via AP

Her body was later found in a wooded area 65 miles away. The car's driver, Nathaniel David Rowland, 24, faces kidnapping and murder charges.

"We are heartbroken about what has happened,'' West said in the interview that aired Thursday on TODAY. "For us, it's a reminder that we have to constantly do everything we can to raise the bar on safety."

The South Carolina House of Representatives passed the Samantha Josephson Ridesharing Safety Act on April 9 requiring drivers from ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, to display illuminated signs in their vehicles. The bill is now up for approval by the South Carolina Senate.

It's not the first time that fake Uber drivers have become an issue. Three women in Los Angeles have filed a lawsuit against the company alleging they were sexually assaulted by men posing as Uber drivers outside bars and nightclubs, leading to questions over whether the company has done enough to warn riders.

Uber's response to Josephson's death has been to create a new alert system that will begin rolling out in South Carolina on Thursday, and then across the rest of its user base in the coming days.

"In the app, when you've ordered your Uber, when it's on the way, you will get more persistent, more frequent notifications, push notifications, to your phone that remind you to check your ride,'' West said.

Uber chief legal officer Tony West
Uber chief legal officer Tony WestNBC News

When you first open the app, a banner at the bottom says "check your ride every time." After ordering a ride, users will be sent a second warning to check the driver's license plate, car details and photo. A third notification will then appear before the driver arrives — this one a push alert — again reminding the rider to check and make sure it's the correct ride.

The company says it also will be working with universities nationwide to develop dedicated pick-up zones on and off campus, and a ride voucher program to provide subsidized rides for students at times when other ways home are limited or unavailable.

Kelly Nantel, vice president of communications and advocacy at the National Safety Council, said she supports the new measures.

"The more information you can give to customers, the better," Nantel said. "As ride-shares increase, I think it's really important that riders have confidence not just in the safety of the vehicle, but also in their security. I think these are steps that move this industry in the right direction."

West acknowledged that people sometimes use the app while drunk. He said the company factored that in while devising the new features.

But even with all of the new alerts, West noted, it's essential for riders to ask drivers a specific question before hopping into their cars. "It's become sort of second nature whenever we get into a car to buckle up," he said. "It has to be second nature before you get into a car to ask, 'Hey, who are you here to pick up?'"

In the interview, West was pressed on whether Uber will take steps to make its vehicles more clearly stand out, in the way New York City cabs only come in certain colors and have medallions. "There have been a lot of ideas that have come about in the last couple of weeks," West said. "The technology itself is a great tool to ensure that you are getting into the right Uber vehicle."

Uber is unveiling the new safety features at the same time as it prepares to go public. West acknowledged that the company is working toward an initial public offering, and said Uber is launching the new alert system for reasons that go beyond its bottom line.

"Is safety a business imperative? Yes. But is it also the right thing to do? Yes," he said. "And it's important for companies to increasingly find that by doing the right thing, they're fulfilling their business imperative."

Uber offers a list of safety tips for anyone using the service, including the following:

- Request a ride inside and wait as long as you can before going outside to get into your ride.

- Check the license plate, make and model of the car and the driver's picture that appear in the app.

- Ask the driver to confirm your name before getting into the car by asking, "Who are you here to pick up?"

- Sit in the back seat so you can easily exit either side and have space between you and the driver.

- Share your trip status with a friend or family member.

- Trust your instincts, and if you feel you are in any danger, call 911 by using the emergency button located in the app, which also can provide your real-time location and trip details to share with the dispatcher.