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Do Transportation Apps Compromise Safety?

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.

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.

Industry leaders say they see more and more apps being developed that could dramatically change the way we approach transportation. While much has been made about a decline in driving in the U.S., internationally the number of cars on the road is increasing, as is adoption of smartphones, says Chris Thomas, managing director of Fontinalis Partners, an investor in transportation apps. Those factors mean transportation apps are likely to continue their proliferation.

But that surge raises a serious question of safety. Apps like Waze can make driving more convenient, but does it come at the cost of safety? Some advocates think that may be the case.

"Our advice for motorists continues to be not to use your cellphone while you're driving -- for any purpose," says Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state highway safety offices. That's similar to the advice that then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave in 2011, when he urged drivers to "put their cellphones in the glove compartment every time they get behind the wheel." It's a clear instruction, and yet, it's the exact opposite of what Waze wants drivers to do. If every motorist followed LaHood's advice, Waze would be out of business.

I asked Eisnor how her company reconciled its business with the fact that motorists have been told for years that cellphones and driving don't mix. She said the company will continue to educate drivers about how to use the app safely and highlighted Waze's ability to take voice commands from motorists. Through a nifty feature, drivers can wave their hand over their phone's front-facing camera to indicate they're about to give a voice command. But Adkins, of the GHSA, is skeptical. "The reality is that [voice commands] don't work very well," he says. "You end up having to pick up the phone and start fidgeting with it yourself, which is the worst possible scenario."

I decided to take Waze out for a second spin -- this time behind the wheel -- vowing to only use voice commands. My experiment got off to a slow start. I waved my hand and told it to "navigate" to a relative's address. Nothing happened. After some research, I discovered the app does indeed allow drivers to use voice commands, but in a limited capacity. If you're exclusively using your voice, there are only two places Waze can take you: your home or your office, and that's only if you've programmed in the addresses ahead of time.

After manually entering the address, I tried using my voice to get a report of traffic along the way by waving my hand and simply saying "report traffic." It worked flawlessly, every time. Until it didn't. About halfway into my trip, Waze lost the ability to recognize anything I said. I also couldn't use my voice to navigate the app's menus or access alternate routes. Most surprisingly, at one point, an alert popped up on the screen asking me to confirm whether another driver's report of a red light camera in my vicinity was accurate. I almost rear ended someone when I glanced to check the message and enter a reply. As one critical writer put it, "Practically everything about the application is designed -- even if not intentionally -- to distract."

Some safety experts say that even if devices have sophisticated hands-free capabilities, they're still dangerous to use behind the wheel. David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who conducted a landmark distracted driving study for AAA last year, says voice commands don't necessarily improve safety because it's not just hands removed from the wheel that pose a risk -- it's the mental distraction that comes with focusing on tasks other than driving. Turn-by-turn directions can improve safety, Strayer says, so long as drivers enter the address before they start moving and don't use the devices while they're driving. If you try to input any information on the go -- whether by voice or by hand -- Strayer says, "Watch out."

Waze's terms of service that say "it is strictly forbidden to send traffic updates ... while driving. Such updates may only be sent after you have stopped your vehicle in an appropriate location permitted by law." But, frankly, that seems like it may be lip service to the idea of safety. After all, it's hard to imagine any drivers will achieve Waze's goal of saving 10 minutes a day if they pull over every time they want to report an accident. Moreover, the app prevents text inputs when the car is moving, but to override it, drivers just have to indicate they're a passenger.

Indeed, some have wondered if Waze or its users could be opening themselves to liability, given that it encourages participation through a points system. One blogger has suggested Waze should pay particularly close attention to an August New Jersey appeals court ruling that found the sender of a text message who knows his recipient is texting and driving can potentially be liable for causing a distraction.

Meanwhile, one wonders if Waze users could one day find themselves afoul of the law as states continue to crack down on distracted driving. Indeed, many states have laws against texting and driving, but they generally aren't designed to cover app use. That could be changing. Last year, under a law typically used to deter texting and driving, a California man was ticketed for looking at a map on his cellphone while behind the wheel. Two courts sided with the cops.

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