If you’re one of those people who keep your phone open to Google Maps while driving, you may have noticed a new feature that’s been added. If you’re driving along and see a police checkpoint, or even just a cop parked by the side of the road, you can upload the location and share that information with all other users in the area. (I’m taking their word for this because I just opened Google Maps on my Android and couldn’t find that option. Maybe you have to be driving.) The feature was already available on Waze (another Google product) but now it’s being offered on both apps. Bill Murphy at inc.com is really excited about this new feature. But you know who isn’t? The cops.
This week, however, Google announced the next best thing: Starting immediately, drivers will be able to report hazards, slowdowns, and speed traps right on Google Maps.
Apparently this has been rolled out in some cases to Android phones, but it will now be available across the board — on Android and iOS. I’m excited, and I think other drivers will be, too.
But one group that will likely not be happy is the police. In recent years, police have asked — or even demanded — that Waze drop the police-locating feature.
As Murphy points out, the NYPD sent a letter to Google earlier this year demanding they eliminate the feature. Previously, the LAPD and the National Sheriffs Association sent similar requests. To date, the company has not complied.
The argument from law enforcement is that the app makes no distinction as to what the police might be doing at a particular location. It only indicates that law enforcement is present. If they are running a DUI checkpoint and you know you’ve probably had a bit too much to drink, you might use that information and take another route to avoid them. The police argue that this makes the roads less safe, and that’s pretty hard to argue with.
But what if it’s not a DUI checkpoint? What if it’s just a cop with a radar gun looking for speeders? The cops make the same argument about that. Google disagrees, saying that people who know there’s a cop in the area tend to slow down, so it might make the roads safer.
I definitely sympathize with the DUI checkpoint argument, but is this something the government can shut down or forbid? After all, we’re talking about motorists sharing information with each other. It’s reminiscent of the days back in the seventies and eighties when many people (myself included) had CB radios in their cars. People would constantly broadcast “smokie alerts” when they saw a patrol car sitting near an overpass “taking pictures.” This allowed drivers to slow down in advance and avoid a ticket. The cops eventually tried to crack down on that, but not with much success.
I don’t really have a firm answer to this question so I’ll leave it up to you to discuss. Is this a useful feature for Google Maps and Waze or is it a way to promote lawlessness and endanger your fellow drivers? And would uploading location data qualify as “speech” if it went to court? Could the government shut it down, and even if they could, should they?