A woman in South Carolina was killed when she mistakenly got into a car she thought was an Uber. N.C. lawmakers have introduced legislation to prevent something similar from happening here, but a policy expert from the free-market R Street Institute warned of the potential for over-criminalization in the pursuit of enhancing public safety. 

Nick Zaiac, a policy fellow at R Street, said it isn’t a good idea to make policy in reaction to a tragic event. 

Zaiac said the bill tries to attack the problem from a variety of angles by imagining the many ways something could go wrong. 

“But it might be overly cautious,” Zaiac said.

House Bill 391, the Passenger Protection Act, passed the House unanimously June 27. It unanimously passed the Senate on July 22. The bill, because of some minor changes, will return to the House for concurrence before it’s sent to the governor. 

The Passenger Protection Act requires that a ride-share driver install a license plate to the front of their car when in operation. The license plate must be at least three inches tall. Additionally, ride-share drivers’ cars must display some sort of signage or emblem clearly indicating it’s a ride-share vehicle. The signage must be readable from 50 feet during daylight hours and visible at night.

Failure to display a front license plate can result in a fine of as much as $250.

H.B. 391 also has a criminal provision. Under the legislation, impersonating a ride-share driver would be a Class 2 misdemeanor. The offense becomes a Class H felony If someone impersonates a ride-share driver while committing another felony. Assaulting a ride-share driver would warrant more severe punishment. Instead of a Class 2 misdemeanor, the crime would be a Class 1 misdemeanor. 

It’s rare for violence to result when someone mistakenly enters a car thinking it’s an Uber or Lyft, Zaiac said. Requiring a front-facing license plate may help passengers stay safe, but, Zaiac, said the criminal aspects of the bill are worrying. 

“The bill already has a solution to that problem,” Zaiac said. “There’s no reason to add a criminal element to it. The criminal element makes this bill feel like an overreaction.” 

Fraud, impersonation, and assault are already illegal, Zaiac said.

“At the end of the day I don’t think assaulting an Uber driver is any more or less bad than assaulting anyone else,” Zaiac said. “You already know assault is illegal. Knowing that assault against an Uber driver is extra illegal is not going to change anything.”

Ride-sharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, have safety features. The ride-share apps let riders see what the driver looks like, the make and model car, and the license plate number before the car arrives. Some ride-sharing apps let a rider share a trip with their family and friends. 

“Ride-sharing companies are already solving the problem,” Zaiac said. “The one thing they aren’t doing right now is requiring drivers to have a front-facing license plate.”