Does Waze Put Lives at Risk?

January 29, 2015

Need to know if there’s a police officer ahead on your drive? There’s an app for that! In 2010, Apple trademarked the phrase “There’s an app for that”, implying Apple’s App Store offers an app for virtually any task you might want to complete. Now, there’s an app, Waze, for alerting drivers to the presence of a police vehicle parked on the shoulder, hidden behind an overpass, or parked in some other location, and last week some law enforcement officials have expressed major concerns about this app.
In 2013, Waze was purchased by Google Inc. for $966 million. According to Waze’s website, “Waze is all about contributing to the ‘common good’ out there on the road.” One of the objectives of the Waze app is to “create local driving communities” that help drivers “avoid the frustration of sitting in traffic, cluing them in to a police trap or shaving five minutes off of their regular commute by showing them new routes they never even knew about.” Waze users can contribute passively to the Waze community simply by driving with the app open on their phone; or those users can contribute actively by reporting accidents, police presence, or various other hazards along the road.
Generally any police officers reported via the Waze app are visible to drivers. Because of this, the head of a civil liberties group in Washington argues it is not “legitimate to ask a person-to-person communication to cease simply because it reports on publicly visible law enforcement.”
Despite Waze’s claimed purpose of “contributing to the ‘common good’ out there on the road” law enforcement officials are concerned that Waze has the potential to be used as a “stalking app” allowing “would-be police killers” to easily find law enforcement. Because of this concern, some in law enforcement are asking Google to disable the feature of Waze that allows users to report police presence. However, as of this blog post, there is no connection between Waze and any attacks on police.
Though just last week law enforcement officials expressed concerns, these concerns surrounding apps with capability similar to Waze are not new. In 2011, four Senators requested Apple remove apps from its App Store that alert drivers to police checkpoints, potentially allowing drivers to drink, drive, and then avoid police checkpoints. These Senators expressed concern that by alerting drunk drivers to these checkpoints, the app was putting citizens at risk: drunk drivers will bypass the reported checkpoints, putting everyone the driver encounters along that route at risk.
Various questions linger regarding whether or not Google should disable the police reporting feature of Waze. One is concerning law enforcement’s sudden motivation in blocking Waze’s police reporting feature. However, as this has been a concern for several years, the question inevitably arises, why now? Is the motivation solely related to police safety? Or is the sudden interest precipitated by a potential reduction in revenues related to fewer traffic stops (thanks to Waze users being alerted to police presence, these users can avoid getting pulled over for speeding)? Regardless the motivation of law enforcement, another consideration must be the safety of drivers actively participating in this Waze community. Many states, to varying degrees, ban cell phone use while driving. Certainly using the Waze app while driving falls under the bans that prohibit hand-held use of phones while driving. Should Waze somehow ensure its users are not breaking the law? Only time will tell if the benefits of Waze and similar apps outweigh the potential safety issues.