The Business Times

Police demand navigation app Waze stop tipping drivers off to checkpoints

They say allowing people to share locations of sobriety checkpoints impedes their ability to keep streets safe

Published Thu, Feb 7, 2019 · 09:50 PM
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New York

GOOGLE'S navigation app Waze is known for providing real-time, user-submitted reports that advise drivers about potential thorns in their roadsides.

But one feature has Waze in conflict with law enforcement officials across the country - how the app marks the location of police officers on the roads ahead or stationed at drunken-driving checkpoints.

Over the weekend, the New York Police Department, the largest force in the nation, joined the fray, sending a letter to Google demanding that the tech giant pull that feature from Waze.

In the letter, which was first reported on by Streetsblog, the Police Department said that allowing people to share the locations of sobriety checkpoints impeded its ability to keep streets safe.

"The posting of such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to aid impaired and intoxicated drivers to evade checkpoints and encourage reckless driving," the department's acting deputy commissioner for legal matters, Ann Prunty, wrote in the letter. "Revealing the location of checkpoints puts those drivers, their passengers and the general public at risk." She added that people sharing the locations of sobriety checkpoints on Waze might be breaking the law by trying "to prevent and/or impair the administration" of the state's DWI laws and that the department planned to "pursue all legal remedies" to stop people from sharing "this irresponsible and dangerous information". It was not immediately clear what legal steps might be taken.

Waze does not allow drivers to specifically identify sobriety checkpoints. But people who use the app's police-reporting feature can leave detailed comments on the cartoonish icon of a mustachioed police officer that pops up.

Google said in a statement Wednesday that safety was a "top priority" and "that informing drivers about upcoming speed traps allows them to be more careful and make safer decisions when they're on the road". Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was reluctant to address the specifics of the letter without more information, but she noted that sobriety checkpoints were frequently publicised in advance and that even when drivers were warned about them, they served their purpose.

"If you are impaired, you are not going to pay attention to that information," she said, adding that in her experience, drunken drivers coming through sobriety checkpoints were often very confused or unaware of what was happening.

"We want these things publicised," she said, because "one of the major efforts is education". She added: "The goal is to make everyone aware that if you drink, don't drive, and if you drive, don't drink." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sobriety checkpoints reduce the risk of drunken-driving crashes by 20 per cent.

Google has previously faced pressure over Waze's police-location reports. After the fatal shooting of two New York police officers in December 2014, law enforcement officials called for the feature to be removed over concerns that it threatened officers' safety.

Charlie Beck, Los Angeles' police chief at the time, wrote a letter that month to Google, saying the app allowed people to target officers. Two months later, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a New York City police union, followed with another letter. Both men pointed to news reports that the man who killed the two New York police officers had posted screenshots from Waze on social media.

Around the same time, near the start of 2015, the National Sheriffs' Association began a campaign urging Google to remove its police-reporting feature from Waze, citing the potential for the app to be used for attacks on police officers.

On Wednesday, the executive director of the sheriffs' association, Jonathan Thompson, said Waze's police feature seemed designed to enable people to circumvent law enforcement.

"Using crowdsourcing doesn't stop you from breaking the law," he said. "It just allows you to be prevented from being arrested. That's a direct undermining of the rule of law." Mr Thompson said the app was also problematic for reasons other than possibly aiding drunken drivers. On its website, the group expresses concern that people who abduct children could use the app to plot routes that avoid police checkpoints.

He also said he thought the app had some redeeming qualities, praising how its hazard and accident features allowed people to participate in keeping members of their communities safe. NYTIMES

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