Waze navigation screen showing icons as they pop up during any given drive.

Waze navigation screen showing icons as they pop up during any given drive.

Waze, a free smartphone app designed to help drivers navigate by providing real-time information about traffic, road construction, police traps, and the like, might be adding to the hazards of being on the road, because it provides yet more distractions for drivers. So writes Kevin Roose, in his New York Magazine article, “Did Google Just Buy a Dangerous Driving App?”

Google recently bought the “social GPS” app for a reported $1.1 billion, Roose notes. Waze was designed by Ehud Shabtai, a software engineer with a degree in Philosophy and Computer Science from Tel Aviv University in Israel. Ehud’s goal was to create an app that accurately reflects the road system, state of traffic, and information drivers would need in any given moment, and he did so by combining open-source software with a community of drivers, as Waze.com indicates.

According to Waze.com:

By simply driving around with the waze client installed on their smart phones, users share real-time information that translates into traffic conditions and road structure. Drivers using waze can also actively report to the community on traffic, accidents, police traps, blocked roads and more. This information is collected and immediately analyzed to provide waze drivers with the most optimal route to their destination, 24 hours a day.

Some of the waze community members with a passion for maps also take an active role in editing and updating the waze map, itself. Most of the editing work is done on the waze Web site, but some parts, such as the naming of streets, can be done through the application directly.

In addition, the app has gaming aspects, in which users look for treasure chests and other “road goodies” for a chance to earn points and win “real-world” prizes. And on the “me” tab of the Waze scoreboard, users can unlock bonus point candies that can move them up in the game. As Waze explains, “The social side of waze has a lot going on, too.” Users can create or join all kinds of local driving groups “to benefit from the wisdom of the crowd” and to interact with other apps, like Foursquare, and also with Twitter and Facebook.

But Roose writes that although Waze is “among the most successful examples of Silicon Valley’s ‘gamification’ craze, in which everyday tasks like driving are given the addictive, button-pushing quality of a video game,” some road safety advocates say it can put drivers at greater risk of a car accident. The icons on the Waze map — which alert drivers to such things as a traffic-light camera, a police speed-check, or some “other hazard” — change as a driver moves along the route. This means, Roose writes, that in a normal commute, a Waze user will be confronted with dozens of such alerts.

Waze has done certain things to try to make the app safer, by disabling text input when a car is in motion. But drivers can override the text-input bock by telling the app they are in the passenger seat, Roose writes. In addition, there is a hands-free option that allows drivers to add alerts to the app (ones that Waze shares with all users on that route) using voice commands instead of typing them into their smartphones.

However, as Roose points out, and as this blog has reported, a recent landmark study from the Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that drivers using speech-to-text commands to interact with apps experience a high level of cognitive distraction and can miss seeing certain things right in front of them as they are driving, like pedestrians.

Noam Bardin, the CEO of Waze, told Roose that concerns about the app’s safety are overblown. Bardin said in a statement: “Safe driving is core to the Waze user experience… Waze remembers favorite routes, disables text input while the car is in motion, and automatically reroutes the car if traffic changes. Every input is hands-free, even real-time reporting.”

But Rocco Pendola, a writer at TheStreet, called Aaze “a fender-bender or life-changing accident waiting to happen,” Roose writes. And Jennifer Smith, an advocate against distracted driving, whose mother was killed in a crash with a driver who was talking on a cell phone, told Roose she understands the appeal of apps like Waze (which has nearly 50 million users), but she wants users to understand the dangers it presents:

‘I know these technologies are going to keep coming,’ she said. ‘But we need to understand that we’re driving a 4,000-pound deadly weapon. Anything can happen in a split second.’

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