Government Technology

Do Transportation Apps Compromise Safety?

A man uses his cellphone while driving.
In 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board urged all states to impose total bans on texting, emailing and talking on the phone while driving except for emergencies.

Waze and other apps want to save drivers 10 minutes every day, but safety experts say it's too dangerous to use these apps while driving.

January 27, 2014 By

The first time I fired up Waze -- the hot new traffic navigation app that's generated lots of buzz and lots of money -- I immediately had two thoughts: This thing is incredibly useful, and it's incredibly dangerous.

My first experience with Waze came while I was a passenger on a three-hour drive in December from Washington, D.C., to rural Maryland for a winter camping trip. When my fiancée and I encountered heavy traffic, I fired up the app and was immediately blown away by the volume of information at my fingertips. I could see how far the traffic jam extended, alternate routes available to me, and the speed at which drivers ahead of me were traveling. I could submit my own reports about traffic and road hazards -- complete with photos -- to help out the drivers behind me. And if I wanted, I could even chat with other motorists near me about the roadway conditions. I took particular pleasure in calling out when we'd be encountering roadkill or stalled out vehicles a few minutes before they came into view, almost feeling like I could predict the future. The longer we drove, the more fun I had using Waze. But the longer I used it, the more convinced I became that I would never let myself use Waze while I was driving. The volume of information on display was just too much.

A month later, I encountered some of the people behind Waze as part of a panel on transportation apps at the Transportation Research Board's (TRB) mega conference in Washington. Joining a Waze vice president on stage were other private-sector leaders who either developed or invested in apps designed to make transportation smoother and easier. Waze, however, was clearly the star. Google purchased the company last year, reportedly for $1.1 billion, making it one of the most successful companies in its space.

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At first glance, Waze functions like any other GPS navigation system, giving turn-by-turn directions to motorists. But it's more useful for a couple of reasons. Waze collects information in the background about how fast motorists are traveling that gives it strikingly accurate, real-time traffic information. At the same time, it encourages its users to actively provide eyewitness information on what's happening around them, be it traffic jams, accidents, collisions or road closures. The more users contribute, the more "points" they get, which makes the experience like a game. The combination of passive and active data collection gives Waze a gold mine of information that it can use to help drivers find the most efficient routes. The company's goal is to save everybody 10 minutes every day, said Di-Ann Eisnor, a Waze vice president who spoke at TRB.

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