APP-HORRENT! Google Maps Now Helps Drivers Avoid Speed Cameras

The NYPD has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the ubiquitous tech giant demanding it stop aiding scofflaws.

speed-camera

There’s a slap for that.

The NYPD is demanding that Google remove a just-added feature to its omnipresent Maps program that tips off drivers to the locations of speed cameras, Streetsblog has learned.

Google added the speed camera notification as part of its effort to incorporate some of the crowd-sourced features of Waze, which the tech giant bought in 2013. The Waze app shows the locations of police checkpoints as well as what some drivers call “speed traps,” but what police believe are life-saving enforcement efforts.

The NYPD sent its “cease-and-desist” letter to Google over the weekend — after Streetsblog asked officials’ about the Waze feature that allows drivers to inform each other of police roadblocks.

“The NYPD has become aware that the Waze Mobile application … currently permits the public to report DWI checkpoints throughout New York City and map these locations,” reads the letter by the NYPD’s Acting Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Ann Prunty. “Accordingly, we demand that Google LLC, upon receipt of this letter, immediately remove this function from the Waze application.”

The letter does not specifically mention Google Maps’ new speed camera notification, but the broad language could be construed to cover such information as well.

The letter caps a brief window of time during which the public was not even aware of the new Google Maps feature and the NYPD writing its warning letter. Commuters said they only noticed the speed camera warnings late last week.

“The map alerted me, ‘Speed camera up ahead,'” said Ed Janoff, a former planner with the Department of Transportation who is now a project director at Street Plans, recalling the notification he received near Francis Lewis Boulevard in Queens. “The tech tools are getting better at supplying the data drivers want in order to help them speed and run red lights without getting caught by the city’s scant few enforcement cameras.”

Google did not announce the new feature publicly, but it was first discovered by the website, AndroidPolice.com.  There had been some coverage in the tech press, which suggested that drivers would be enthusiastic about the changes.

mashable screen shot
Mashable offered this screen shot of what the service looks like in England. The speed cameras are marked in orange.

“Google Maps Wants to Help you Avoid that Speeding Ticket,” read a headline in Mashable. The outlet reported that Google Map users have been able to report “speed traps” since late last year, but the app didn’t enable the feature until now.

“The speed traps will have orange camera icons so drivers can make sure to maintain the speed limit around these areas,” Elite Daily reported. “The best part? Drivers will receive audio notifications when approaching speed traps.”

The best part? That’s not how the NYPD sees it.

“Individuals who post the locations of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct since such actions could be intentional attempts to prevent and/or impair the administration of the DWI laws and other relevant criminal and traffic laws,” the letter stated. “The posting of such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to aid impaired and intoxicated drivers to evade checkpoints and encourage reckless driving. Revealing the location of checkpoints puts those drivers, their passengers, and the general public at risk.

“The NYPD will pursue all legal remedies to prevent the continued posting of this irresponsible and dangerous information.”

The Waze police checkpoint feature has been under fire for years, with a national sheriffs group and the NYPD’s sergeants union demanding that it be deactivated in 2015, days after Brooklyn police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were ambushed in their squad car by a killer who had the Waze app on his phone.

Nothing came of those demands — though in 2017, France made it illegal for apps to reveal the locations of speed cameras and radar — until this weekend’s NYPD letter.

Street safety activists, such as Jonathan Rogers (tweet below), have long complained about how the Waze feature undermined enforcement tools and strategies that took years to implement.

For the record, the Waze app does not feature clinking beer mugs, but the company does proudly boast that its service has 100 million drivers “avoiding traffic, police and hazards.”

waze mottoThe  kind of attitude about police enforcement was disconcerting from the popular Waze, but it is particularly alarming when deployed by Google Maps, which is far more widely used than any other navigation system.

A 2017 study revealed that Google Maps is the navigation app of choice of 67 percent of smartphone users who say they use a digital map. The next-closest app in popularity was Waze at a mere 12 percent.

As such, safety activists are concerned that speed camera effectiveness is about to decline dramatically. Members of Families for Safe Streets, for example, spent much of the summer staging almost-daily rallies in support of New York City’s speed camera program, which the state legislature allowed to expire before the City Council and Gov. Cuomo worked out a deal to restore 140 school-zone systems — a pact that remains in effect today.

The governor has proposed expanding the program to 290 cameras — far short of the 1,000-plus systems activists wanted.

But no matter how many cameras are installed, they will fail to do the job if scofflaw drivers are alerted to their location, said Amy Cohen of Families for Safe Streets.

“With so few traffic safety cameras operating, it is deeply disturbing that Google is making it easier for drivers to identify and choose routes where speeding is rarely enforced,” Cohen told Streetsblog. “We need our state and city lawmakers to allow for a drastic increase in life-saving traffic safety cameras, like speed-, red light- and intersection cameras. If Google wants to avoid getting blood on their hands, they should become strong active partners in the fight for more life-saving traffic safety cameras in New York.”

Janoff, the transportation planner, took a broader view.

“You could argue that the warnings are helpful because … they are more likely to prevent speeding and red light running in the first place — and at the locations where the city has deemed a high enough priority that they warrant camera enforcement,” he said. “But given that more than 99 percent of streets have no camera enforcement, you are effectively letting drivers know where they are and aren’t likely to get caught breaking the law, which seems counter to the whole mission of making streets safer by reducing illegal driving behavior.”

Neither Google nor Waze answered multiple requests for comment from Streetsblog.

The NYPD letter is embedded below.

  • Joe R.

    Remember the cameras are only in operation during school hours. Motorists already know they can speed with impunity before maybe 7AM and after 4 or 5 PM.

    Also, even in Europe the goal of speed cameras is not to reduce speeding everywhere, but to reduce it in the locations which have cameras because that’s where it can cause the most problems. We absolutely need more cameras because the present number doesn’t even come close to covering the locations where speeding is the most dangerous. However, we should also carefully examine every street and determine whether or not higher (or lower) speed limits might be warranted. Factors might include the presence or absence of vulnerable users, sight lines, general traffic levels, etc.

    There’s a reason drivers in Europe tend to obey speed limits more rigorously than those in the states. For starters, the speed limits usually make sense. You might have very low limits in urban areas, perhaps well under the 85th percentile, but most motorists are also cyclists and pedestrians, so they understand why these limits are set this low. Conversely, highway speed limits tend to be set higher, typically 120 kph to 160 kph (75 mph to 100 mph), with 130 or 140 kph being the most common. This matches the speeds drivers feel comfortable driving at, and hence there is widespread compliance. This compliance with speed limits also follows through to other traffic laws.

    In the US the legislated 55 mph speed limit in the 1970s started a general disrespect of motorists first for speed limits, then for a lot of other traffic laws. In general speed limits should be set by traffic engineers. This doesn’t imply blanket 85th percentile speed limits everywhere. Engineers can consider other factors, and set much lower limits to protect vulnerable users. This is really the path we should take in the US. It’s worked pretty well in Europe.

  • Franco

    I might be somewhat sympathetic if the police only wanted to protect DWI enforcement. Unfortunately, they are allowed to “randomly” check vehicle registrations, etc. When I was stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in NJ, I was asked for my license, registration and insurance card. I had not been drinking at all. Under pressure from the cop, and in the clutter of my glove compartment, I could not locate the current insurance card in (what the cop considered) a timely fashion. I was given a $75 ticket. Of course I found the card immediately afterward…

    Since it was reasonably local, I went to court and politely explained that my vehicle was insured, the card was in the car the whole time, and I simply had trouble finding it. They refused to dismiss the ticket! Upon realizing I was SOL, I asked the cop point-blank, “So are you guys the cops or the banditos?” He simply shrugged…

  • djalan2000

    Yes, I’ve been thinking we need more cameras everywhere ever since 1984!! (Think about it)

  • DCGuy97

    What a surprise, dirty pigs get annoyed when technology interferes with their legalized extortion.

  • crazytrainmatt

    This is such a genius idea I checked it out over lunch break. You can download waze and report a camera immediately. Nothing happens immediately, as lower priority annotation like cameras apparantly only gets added to the map during a periodic refresh. A couple hours later I see a “Police (Hidden)” in the waze map — not sure if that’s a coincidence since it’s not exactly what I reported. I don’t see it in google maps, but I think google is more selective about showing these right now.

    Waze has some sort of voting process where other users can mark it as a innacurate, and it takes into account user reputation. There also appears to be crowdsourced moderation but I have no idea how vigorous the community is.

    It would be pretty easy for them to filter out a slew of camera reports from new accounts who never seem to drive, but you don’t know until you try!

  • qrt145

    The thing that actually worries me about Waze is the distracted drivers, using the app to report stuff while they drive…

  • It feels really weird to agree with a statement put out by the police. This allows a brief glimpse of what would be like to live in a world in which our authorities and institutions were worthy of respect, the way that Federation citizens of the 24th century feel all the time.

  • Daniel Nee

    Alerting motorists to the location of DWI checkpoints enhances officer safety by ensuring drivers carefully approach emergency vehicles and officers who may be present on or about the roadway. Likewise, alerting motorists to the presence of speed and red light cameras enhance general traffic safety by ensuring drivers conform to the speed limit and follow traffic signals – literally the stated goal of such cameras.

    I suppose, in theory, fewer tickets would be issued, but revenue generation is outside the statutory mission of law enforcement, so that is a moot point.

    (I’ll forward my legal services invoice to Google. You guys owe me for about 45 seconds of work.)

  • Daniel Nee

    The reason speed cameras are more prevalent in Europe (and South America… I swear Medellin, Colombia has to have more of them than any city in the world) are because there are fewer constitutional protections for motorists and they extent to which they can be utilized is significantly expanded compared to the U.S.

    Europeans also tend to use vehicles for highway use on longer trips rather than daily use on suburban streets, so the occasional risk of receiving a ticket is better tolerated by the public. Furthermore, studies have also found that red light cameras, in the United States, increase rather than decrease crashes due to the prevailing manner of zoning we use compared to other parts of the world.

    Anyone who favors more cameras must either lack a driver’s license or be very boring at parties. 😉

  • Daniel Nee

    Why would you want people to “slow down everywhere?” Driving an unnaturally low speed is, in and of itself, a distraction while driving. People who are staring at their speedometers to avoid a ticket are not paying attention to the road.

  • Daniel Nee

    It would be great if we had cameras everwhere

    Wow.

  • The only better thing would be automatic speed governors that do not allow the vehicle to go faster than the speed limit of the street where it is located.

    But, until that sort of technology is available, blanket surveillance by camera is the next best means to keep drivers honest.

  • The Hammer

    I’m a former traffic cop from Cape Cod in the ’70’s. I fought with my Chief who wanted me to hide in the bushes & run radar. I told him my job was to slow people down so I set up in plain sight lo in the medians of major roads.
    It worked unless some knucklehead blew past me at 10mph over the limit. He got a regular citation for being “a dumbass during the nighttime/ daytime” depending on the hour of the day.

  • Simon Phearson

    It feels really weird to agree with a statement put out by the police.

    Might be a good hint that you’re wrong, but it’s obviously lost on you.

  • Simon Phearson

    They clearly don’t. What they care about are pretextual stops that serve broader “law enforcement” purposes. Stop a car for speeding, search for drugs and guns; rinse and repeat.

  • Simon Phearson

    Ferdinand is an authoritarian communist. He’d vote for Stalin if he could. Pay him no mind.

  • Simon Phearson

    OK, if the app makes people slow down, that would be great. But if the effect is to lead drivers to avoid routes with cameras, then that entirely defeats the purpose, and facilitates speeding.

    As usual, your argument proves too much.

    If giving drivers advance notice of where speed cameras are located enables them to speed elsewhere, then so too does simply placing permanent speed cameras in specific locations. Drivers learn where the cameras are, and then avoid them. So the app is just as problematic as the cameras themselves.

  • walks bikes drives

    You always have very insightful opinions, well thought out and with great anecdotes. But this one I can’t agree with you on. If, correctly, you can’t love all cyclists together under the reckless label, you cannot do the same for any other group of road users.

  • cjstephens

    I’m not sure, but if it were crowd-sourced and a group of safe streets advocates just _happened_ to “report” speed cameras at all the locations where they wished speed cameras actually existed, well, who could stop them?

  • Joe R.

    I’ve said the same thing a number of times about staring at the speedometer versus paying attention to the road.

  • Simon Phearson

    I’m becoming convinced that Gersh just doesn’t understand streets.

    Look, I understand why the advocacy community is gung-ho about enforcement. It’s an easy win. It’s good politics. Push down the speed limits, authorize a few hundred cameras located within “school zones,” you have the illusion of progress.

    But what I care about is not demonstrating some illusion of efficacy but safer streets. I do not care if a street has a protected bike lane if, every other block, it exposes me to left- or right-hook risk (as we’ve recently seen morbidly demonstrated lately). I do not care if a street has a speed or red light camera that is operative during school hours if I bike on it when the cameras are switched off. I do not care if people know where the finite speed cameras are when our streets continue to be designed to induce speeding.

    Fix. The. Streets. Don’t spend all of this political and financial capital trying to enforce our way to safer streets. Fix. The. Streets. Daylight intersections, cut off through routes, push for more road diets.

    I fundamentally cannot agree with a philosophical approach that endorses an absurd and authoritarian “demand” from the NYPD that it be allowed to conduct its sting operations without oversight or transparency, all in the rather far-fetched belief that this will somehow convince a handful of drivers to speed a little less recklessly than they might otherwise be inclined to do. I don’t see the evidence, and I don’t see how it benefits anyone who actually lives on the streets you’re ignoring. Fix. The. Streets.

  • AnoNYC

    It’s easy to see emergency vehicles that have created a checkpoint. You will have multiple vehicles with red and blue flashing lights. Traffic cones and queued traffic.

    Highlighting the locations on Waze and Google Maps helps drivers to go around.

    And the problem with highlighting the speed cameras is that drivers only slow down at those locations. There just aren’t enough in the city.

  • AnoNYC

    The city could roll out more mobile cameras and move them a few blocks when reported on the app.

    Alternatively, the NYPD could spam the app.

  • AnoNYC

    You must not be from New York City.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Reminder: I just report the news. I do not endorse the NYPD, but wanted readers to know that it was concerned about a Google feature that may encourage, rather than discourage, speeding by alerting drivers what streets they can avoid.

    It is also a fact that 83 percent of people who get speed camera tickets do not get a second one, which is at least some evidence that camera enforcement works.

    All criticism is appreciated. Please email me at gersh@streetsblog.org if I can be of any assistance.

  • AnoNYC

    I figured during DWI checkpoints in particular the NYPD could just spam several alternative routes.

  • AnoNYC

    Waze has deactivated cameras on their map.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Yes.

  • AnoNYC

    A driver can tell the difference between 25 and 34 MPH without relying on the speedometer. 35 MPH on NYC streets feels really fast and is much faster than the surrounding traffic normally travels on most streets.

    And checking the speedometer occasionally and maintaining a relatively consistent speed is not a difficult thing to do.

  • Ferguson

    Speeding in nyc?! Where is that possible?

  • Brian Howald
  • Brian Howald

    The lethality of a collision between someone walking or biking with someone driving increases dramatically between 20 mph (5%) and 40 mph (85%), which is why our city’s speed limit is set to 25 mph.

    A driver can only receive a ticket from a school zone speeding camera in New York City for driving 36 mph or faster by one of the 140 cameras that the city operates.

    There’s nothing unnaturally slow about 25 mph (or 36 mph) in the most pedestrian-dense city in our country.

    That said, if your point is that rather than reducing speed limits, we should be redesigning our streets so that speeds of greater than 25 mph feel risky to drivers as a deterrent to exceeding the speed limit, I’m with you.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, it’s more like needing to check your speedometer so you’re going 33 or 34 mph instead of 35 mph. If drivers are forced to obey a speed limit for whatever reason, they’ll tend to try to sit right on the limit, not drive almost 10 mph under it. Here the defacto (i.e. enforced) limit is 35 mph. Staring at the speedometer is one reason why strict speed enforcement can make things more dangerous for vulnerable users.

    If you want drivers to go slower in certain locations, redesign the streets, period. That’s what they do in Europe. I’m tired of Americans thinking they can be smart asses and take shortcuts, yet arrive at the same end results. It doesn’t work that way. You want slower, safer streets, you need to design them. You want good mass transit and bike infrastructure, you have to spend the money.

  • Joe R.

    This is coming soon anyway. Once more than a few percent of the vehicles on the road are autonomous, they’ll be setting the pace for the rest of traffic.

  • Joe R.

    Which I predict will eventually be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, especially as the Court continues to move right. One reason the NYPD is out of control is precisely because they know the citizens of NYC are effectively disarmed. The police wouldn’t dare try to pull the crap they pull here in, say, Texas.

  • Joe R.

    This is exactly what a lot of advocates don’t want to hear, namely that reducing fatalities is an expensive, multi-year process. Europe didn’t arrive at 1/3 to 1/2 the traffic fatalities per capita as the US overnight. They started the process 25 or 30 years ago. We just started at most ten years ago, and then only in a handful of cities. Most of the US hasn’t even gotten started.

  • Joe R.

    The shoplifting example is a bad analogy. Sure, the store absolutely is not required to announce when they have enforcement, and NYC is not required to disclose the locations of speed cameras. However, people who patronize the store are free to publicly post whether or not they see security personnel, just as people are free to publicly post the location of speed cameras.

  • Simon Phearson

    Reminder: I just report the news.

    Don’t bullshit me. You know good and well that you editorialize heavily, and that your “news” coverage is heavily slanted. That isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but don’t pretend you’re doing something you’re not.

    I do not endorse the NYPD, but wanted readers to know that it was concerned about a Google feature that may encourage, rather than discourage, speeding by alerting drivers what streets they can avoid.

    Yeah, you want to “alert” readers to a set of facts, carefully framed to support the heavy-handed and absurd actions that the NYPD is taking.

    It is also a fact that 83 percent of people who get speed camera tickets do not get a second one, which is at least some evidence that camera enforcement works.

    Fix. The. Streets.

  • Simon Phearson

    That’s just illegal, what you’re describing.

  • Simon Phearson

    People who need to stare at their speedometers in order to observe a slow-feeling speed limit should not be driving.

    If speedometer use were quite so involving and essential as you say, then no car should have a speedometer at all, and there should be no speed limit, anywhere, save, “drive at whatever speed feels safe in the conditions.”

    But, no – speedometers in cars are placed conveniently within a driver’s normal field of vision. It doesn’t take constant checking to stay below a “slow” limit, and even if it did, we’re not talking about a huge commitment of mental resources.

    Maybe you should try biking with a speedometer sometime. Those things are typically installed on handlebars. The ones I’ve had are impossible to read in the dark and hard to read in full light, and require taking your eyes off the path ahead entirely. That might be a situation where rigid enforcement of a too-low speed limit might be genuinely challenging to observe. But drivers? No, they’ve got it easy.

  • qrt145

    Everywhere, as long as it’s not rush hour (and in some parts even if it is).

  • Guest

    The location of speed cameras is public information, not an NYPD secret code. A NY judge will toss this one out quickly

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Gersh, provide a citation for your claim of 83% don’t re-offend. Plenty of data contradicts that. Further, even if you do, it potentially only demonstrates that they aren’t speeding in the locations where the speed cameras are known to exist. So it doesn’t demonstrate that they aren’t speeding elsewhere.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Two points; if drivers are complying with the speed since they know of the cameras, isn’t that the desired outcome? After all, it is speed compliance that we want, not the fines. Secondly, I find it ironic that progressives decry the police while at the same time siding with them when they are a convenient tool against drivers.

  • Sixclicks

    I hope Google laughed at their complaint and threw it in the trash.

  • Franco

    Yes, I questioned the legality too, especially since I was committing no offense. I’m still not convinced, but it was explained to me that the cops are allowed to check cars according to a “random formula” (oxymoron?) such as every 4th or 5th car, to remove subjective factors. In any case, I cut my losses and paid the fine. My point was to illustrate why a law abiding driver might want to avoid a DUI checkpoint, or any encounter with police.

  • PatrickHarrel

    There is a distinction from identifying that speed cameras are on NYC streets and identifying the exact location of the cameras. In the first, drivers would drive more cautiously and comply with the law on the entirety of the road, but in the latter they would simply slow down for a short period before and after passing the camera.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    As editor of Streetsblog, I have also overseen intense coverage of street redesign successes and failures,. Your larger point — that street redesign is the most crucial element — is of course accurate. We are not ignoring that. But according to the mayor, Vision Zero’s three pillars are education, enforcement and design. We cover all three. And I don’t think it’s “heavy handed” for the NYPD to send a simple letter to Google.

    Again, all criticism is welcome. But I really did feel that the NYPD was raising a reasonable issue about Google tipping off drivers to the locations of speed cameras. That said, the spirited debate in the comments section also reminds us that some people think it’s better that Google reveal the locations, which is also reflected in our follow up story.

    As far as editorializing, yes, I do it all the time. But it is always labeled as my column, “Cycle of Rage,” or as “Opinion.”

    As an aside, I don’t know why you seem to have such a personal hostility towards me. If you want to discuss this further, I am always available.

  • Arthur Conrad

    The SC has ruled informing drivers of police DUI stops and speed traps is protected free speech.

    Google should send a letter back to NYPD with three simple words: Go F*ck Yourself.

  • Arthur Conrad

    “the NYPD could spam the app”

    You’re advocating the NYPD break the law.

    Don’t they do enough of that already?

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