Google Defends Tipping Off Drivers to NYPD Cameras as a ‘Safety’ Feature

Here's a screen shot of what the Google Maps camera notification looks like in England. The speed cameras are marked in orange.
Here's a screen shot of what the Google Maps camera notification looks like in England. The speed cameras are marked in orange.

Google has no intention of backing down on what the NYPD believes is a “criminal” effort to help drivers learn the locations of police enforcement checkpoints and speed cameras — because the tech giant thinks it’s best suited to improve public safety.

In a statement to Streetsblog on Wednesday, the California-based Internet monolith disputed the NYPD’s contention that tipping off drivers constitutes a safety hazard that “only serves to encourage reckless driving.”

“Safety is a top priority when developing navigation features at Google,” the company said in a statement. “We believe that informing drivers about upcoming speed traps allows them to be more careful and make safer decisions when they’re on the road.”

The NYPD disagreed with the company’s “belief” in the safety efficacy of alerting drivers to what Google refers to as “speed traps,” but pedestrians, cyclists and law-abiding drivers call safety measures.

“If people are speeding through areas that don’t have speed cameras because they are able to avoid areas that do, that is a significant public safety concern,” said NYPD spokesman Phil Walzak.

How Streetsblog broke the story.
How Streetsblog broke the story.

Google declined to answer any follow-up questions from Streetsblog. The company’s statement came hours after Streetsblog reported on details of Google’s latest Maps feature — which shows the locations of speed cameras — and the NYPD’s hostile reaction to the app, which led the agency’s chief legal officer to write a cease-and-desist letter to Google over the weekend. That letter has not been answered, Walzak said.

The Streetsblog report has prompted national coverage and discussion. NBC News did a segment on the NYPD letter to Google, and scores of comments filled the Streetsblog story, with some defending Google, but others pointing out the gray areas in what normally would be a straightforward debate about how best to enforce posted speed limits.

“It’s very simple,” posted one reader who gave only the name Andrew. “If the goal of speed cameras is to reduce speeding at a handful of locations that have cameras, then announcing the presence of those cameras is a good idea. If the goal of speed cameras is to reduce speeding everywhere, at far more locations than there can possibly be cameras, then announcing the presence of cameras is a bad idea.

“If you own a store that suffers from a shoplifting problem around the clock, but you can only afford the extra personnel for shoplifting stings a few hours each week, do you prominently post the hours that enforcement will take place, or do you let people figure out that they’re best off never shoplifting since they don’t know when they’ll be caught?”

Fellow reader Ferdinand Cesarano added his concern that the app would merely “lead drivers to avoid routes with cameras,” which would enable more speeding.

“It would be great if … the app therefore just alerted drivers of the need to drive under the speed limit on all streets,” he added. “This [camera locator] feature is offered only because the company knows that its customers desire it. This is a reminder that drivers don’t even accept the premise that they are meant to follow the law. They go so far as to deny the very legitimacy of traffic laws.”

  • Joe R.

    Whether you feel posting the locations of speed cameras or DWI checkpoints is a good idea or not, the 1st Amendment is on Google’s side. Anything which happens on a public street in public view is fair game to discuss as protected free speech. This is yet another example of NYPD trying to skirt the constitution. We don’t need to grant the NYPD yet more powers, whether explicit or implicit. They already run the city, not the mayor, not the governor. Lest anyone forget, they already tried to exercise powers not given to them when they came out against decriminalizing fare beating and sidewalk cycling. Last I checked, the NYPD is part of the executive branch charged with enforcing laws, not the legislative branch charged with making them. Here again they’re trying to do the same thing. And Streetsblog, plus a number of readers, are supporting them? So the ends justify the means? Would everyone feel the same if the NYPD came out against Google posting the location of cycling dragnets? Probably not.

    If the 1st Amendment makes doing police work more difficult or more dangerous, tough shit. Nobody owes the police an easy living. As a group, the NYPD have overstepped their authority more times than I care to think about, have consistently excused drivers who kill people, have constantly blamed victims, have continuously harassed the citizens of this city for violating petty laws, have denied again and again requests for information, in general have acted like they’re a power unto themselves. It’s time we all see the NYPD for what they are, a gang of thugs. Anyone who defends them when they’re clearly wrong, as is the case here, is part of the problem.

    Finally, if you want to makes things safer for vulnerable users, the answer is to redesign the streets. Yes, it’s a multi-year process which will cost a lot of money, but in the end there are no shortcuts. You Americans always think you’re the exception to the rule. Hey, we can just lower the speed limit, slap up a bunch of speed cameras, and accomplish the same thing in one year as it took Europe 20 years and 50 times the cost to accomplish. Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. You have spend the money and built the infrastructure. We’re already rudely awakening to that fact with the subways. We need to do so with the streets as well.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Remember, it’s 10 miles per hour over the speed limit in a school zone. Five miles? Everyone does it. Ten miles?

    They are programming self-driving cars right now. Will they obey the speed limit, or simply avoid speed traps?

  • Sassojr

    You left off this rational quote, “All drivers are sociopaths.” -Ferdinand Cesarano

  • carl jacobs

    The location of a speed camera isn’t a state secret. Drivers want to know this information for the same reason they want to know the location of an exit – so they can react with foresight. In fact, the only reason to protect the location of a speed camera is to protect it as a potential source of revenue.

    A speed camera is not periodically relocated like an officer with a radar gun. It is intended to reduce speed at a given location. That only occurs if drivers knows the speed camera is there. Public knowledge of a speed camera will assist the public purpose of reducing speed at that location. Unless of course the purpose of the speed camera is to raise revenue.

    “But then drivers can take another route!”

    So what? A driver is free to take any route he chooses. If he chooses to avoid a speed camera that is his business. If he choose to traverse the location of the camera that is his business. That speed camera is located at a particular location for a reason. Speed cameras are not secretly placed to intimidate drivers into thinking “There might be a speed camera around here.” Drivers quickly learn where they are and react accordingly. They want to be reminded so they don’t forget as they approach. Why is this bad?

    Well there is that whole revenue generation aspect …

  • kevd

    google has no reason to back down because this is constitutionally protected.
    regardless of their reasons.

    just add more cameras, NYC – and leave them on 24/7.

  • Geck

    Just because you have a right to do something does not make it the right thing to do. Google can save lives or make more money. “Don’t be evil!”

  • motorock

    It would be great if NYPD or someone can show with studies or research something to prove their hypothesis. It’s something that happens in public and one can’t be stopped from posting what happens in public. For example, NYPD sets up illegal, ineffective and discriminatory checkpoints for only motorcycles to try and write a ticket for flimsy reasons. God forbid, if you happen to be a person of color. Ditto for ticketing cyclists for no good reason. They lost $375 million trying to defend shit like this.
    The public needs to be empowered to keep the NYPD in check-they are no saints.

  • motorock

    Hear hear

  • qrt145

    I agree in general, but there are movable speed cameras too. Those are periodically relocated.

  • qrt145

    They could back down for PR reasons even if what they are doing is legal.

  • kevd

    they could. but they cannot be legally compelled too.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ll say it again — the way to make them back down in a PR sense is to question the link to self-driving cars, and their potential impact on non-vehicular street users.

  • Geck

    You are underplaying the deterrent effect of being in an area you don’t frequent and not knowing where speed camera are located and being aware that you can be caught speeding at any time. Including speed cameras in mapping apps makes it possible to speed with impunity most of the time, public safety be damned. Speed limit exist in recognition of the fact that some people will drive at unsafe speeds for the conditions. Or do you think drives should mostly be free to drive at an unsafe speed that endangers the safety of other road users.

  • ddartley

    All the more reason to install more and more automated enforcement till it’s nearly everywhere. Only then can Google have its way and say this is a safety feature.
    Also, “trap” indicates entrapment. I’m not sure about other cameras out there, but the school zone speed cameras couldn’t be more different from a “trap.”

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    We’re up to a 2-day distraction with this non-story? The point of the cameras is not to catch people speeding, it is to stop people from speeding. Informing people about the cameras helps to accomplish this purpose.

  • kevd

    I think you’ll find that popular opinion is firmly on google’s side.

    Everything I’ve read about self-driving cars states that they are programmed to obey posted limits But, hey tech giants have lied to us before, so who knows!

  • kevd

    “Informing people about the cameras helps to accomplish the former.”
    Especially when there are enough of them, and they are in operation more than 10 hours a day…..

  • mfs

    @gersh this is getting silly. Why are you quoting commenters who only back your original POV?

    If your goal is to get lots of comments, then you’re succeeding. If your goal is to provide reasoned commentary on the news and city policies backed by research, which was Streetsblog’s original MO, you need to stop and think.

  • AMH

    How can I add a “speed camera” to the map to stop drivers from speeding by my house?

  • Colby Spath

    Do Google Maps show School Zones? If not then their excuse is BS…

  • Colby Spath

    I just added one to my street, we will see if it works, lol

  • Alex

    I like that option. if Google is not going to remove the speed camera option, then we should “add” one to a street, even if there isnt one. By Google’s logic, it will make drivers “be more careful and make safer decisions when they’re on the road.”

  • Alex

    Imagine a convict has escaped from custody and is determined he was seen driving around in an X car.

    Police also create checkpoints around areas where this convict may be and could potentially stop him if they see an X car. With Google’s feature, the convict can escape these checkpoints and escape in a car without worrying about NYPD finding them, and this would be on Google’s hands. This is not just about evading speed traps.

  • Irony

    The NYPD might have a bit of moral authority here if so many of its officers didn’t have illegal plate covers and defaced license plates to help them avoid speed cameras.

    Pot, meet kettle.

  • Joe R.

    If Goggle doesn’t do this you’ll have alternate sources, like word of mouth or twitter. Also, I doubt these speed cameras or the lower speed limit saved even one life. On most streets the only effect of the speed limit change was the number on the sign went from 30 to 25. On streets with speed cameras, which only operate while school is in session, typically school crossing guards and general traffic congestion (i.e. school buses) forced traffic to slower speeds even before the speed cameras. Let’s call this what it is, namely a feel-good measure which gives political types a photo-op to say they’re doing something when they’re really not. It reminds me of the idiots who think they’re solving global warming by screwing in an LED light bulb, then going off taking their Escalade to work. The politicians like to sell people on painless answers to big problems. All good and well, but these answers usually don’t work.

    You want to save lives here’s what you do:

    1) Redesign streets with less parking (to discourage car use), narrower lanes, daylighting at intersections, fewer stop signs/traffic signals, more uncontrolled intersections, more roundabouts, more bike lanes, more bus lanes, etc. This is obviously a long-term project. And sure, you can have speed cameras if you want, but once the streets are redesigned like this, they won’t be catching many people because drivers will feel unsafe going too fast.

    2) Increase highway speed limits to encourage traffic to move to limited access highways which have no vulnerable users.

    3) Do anything and everything to decrease unnecessary motor vehicle use. In the end the single biggest predictor of fatalities isn’t traffic speeds but traffic volumes. As a thought exercise, think which would you rather cross as a pedestrian—a street with 1000 vehicles per hour traveling at only 25 mph, or one with 10 vehicles per hour traveling at 70 mph. I’ll pick the latter in a heartbeat. I think most people would. While we can’t reduce traffic levels in NYC by 99%, I think we can eventually reduce them by at least 75%.

  • Joe R.

    Larry, everything I’ve read about self-driving cars tells me they will obey the speed limit religiously, at least on local urban streets. By failing to do so, the car companies could be opening themselves up to serious liability issues.

    Highways might be another story, but here’s what I think will happen. At first,self-driving cars will obey the speed limits religiously. Once self-driving cars demonstrate their safety for a year or two car makers will push for increased speed limits on the grounds that the cars have near-zero reaction time and don’t do stupid, unpredictable moves like human drivers. If there are still human-driven cars on the road, there will be a push for autonomous vehicle lanes with a higher speed limit. Once there are no more humans driving, the entire highway will have a higher speed limit. And in all likelihood the limit will be increased in increments as autonomous vehicles improve. We may yet one day have the 150 mph highways envisioned by those who built the Interstates. Whether or not this is a good thing depends upon vehicle design. If higher speeds encourage much more efficient, aerodynamic, battery-electric designs it will be a good thing. If we have mostly SUVs, it won’t.

  • Joe R.

    The question is how does one define “unsafe”. It shouldn’t be a number on a sign unless that number can be changed at will to reflect the conditions. 15 mph might be reckless in the middle of a blizzard and 45 mph might be just fine on an outer borough arterial late nights. As a pedestrian, I feel more endangered crossing streets by cars which might suddenly turn into me without yielding. The ones going in a straight line, even at 50 mph, don’t really bother me because I’ll either look before crossing (if I don’t have the light, or the intersection is unsignaled), or they’ll be stopped by the traffic signal (if I do have the light). When I’m riding the vehicles which can potentially right hook me, or cut me off to park, are a bigger safety problem than those which pass me, even if they’re going well over the speed limit. The only caveat is I want a wide berth when being passed, but that’s just as true whether the vehicle is only going 25 mph or 45 mph.

    The bottom line is it’s not so much the speed which matters, at least to a first approximation), but rather whether or not the driver exercises due care around vulnerable users (and yes, sometimes that due care involves reducing speed). Speed of course becomes an issue in and of itself when the speed is so high the driver cannot effectively control the car or obey traffic controls. This might occur at only 35 mph on a narrow, residential side street, or it might not occur until 60+ mph on a multi-lane arterial with good sight lanes. Of course, speed limits should be set well below speeds at which drivers can’t control their vehicles, but we should maybe start thinking in terms of variable speed limits. I’d like to see 15 mph near schools when school is letting out or starting. The rest of the time 25 or 30 or even higher might be OK. I’d like to see speed limits lowered during snowy or icy or very rainy conditions. The point here is “unsafe” speed isn’t as simple as picking a number.

  • The fact that Google persists in calling legitimate enforcement tools “speed traps” tells us that they are not taking seriously the questions about the appropriateness of their policy.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I had simply assumed they would follow the speed limits until yesterday.

  • The first reader quote is from Andrew, who made the contrary point that informing drivers of the speed cameras causes them to slow down, which helps safety. This is a valid argument; indeed, Google itself could have made this argument instead of continuing to use the inflammatory term “speed traps”.

  • Joe R.

    Call them “speed control points”. That seems more accurate anyway.

  • Joe R.

    In Ferdinand’s defense, that term has a bit of truth to it, not because all drivers are sociopaths, but because the very act of driving in an urban area is inherently antisocial and detrimental to those around the driver, even if the driver is a saint. Cars spew pollution, they take up valuable space, and they slow down other modes.

  • ddartley

    #TechnologicalTacticalUrbanism

  • crazytrainmatt

    Speed limits can also be raised on the premise that self-driving cars will be safer. And if that turns out to be wrong, it will be tough to roll back.

    It’s easier to remake the built and legal environment to favor speed and convenience for the customer than to strike a thoughtful balance with the rights of non-paying bystanders. We’ve seen this story before.

  • crazytrainmatt

    This — Waymo argues for lax regulation to favor disruptive technologies, while Waze facilitates evading existing regulation.

    Silicon Valley hasn’t woken up to the overall attitude shift. Privacy, plateauing innovation, job disruption, and even the Uber and Tesla fatalities mean that they are more vulnerable on this point than they are accustomed to.

  • ddartley

    @colbyspath:disqus how did you do it? I want to put a few near my kids’ schools.

  • walks bikes drives

    Yep, there was one sitting on my corner this morning. Love seeing him sitting there!

  • walks bikes drives

    And cyclists run red lights, speed, and terrorize little old ladies.

  • Ralph G Mercuri

    Doesn’t anyone notice the faulty logic, the reckless inferences, the misdirection and slight of hand conclusions.. How do you get to speeders taking different routes just to speed and break the law.. WTF. Seriously, are you all just taking that inference as fact..?? How do you know there is a route that is both reasonable to take, and offers the same opportunities to speed as the one with the cameras..?? And people, speeders are not like other criminals, like those that commit burglary or rape . Those types need to do those crimes for their various reasons Speeding is a crime of opportunity and novelty, not need. I do not know of anyone that wakes up and ‘needs’ to go speeding around town to satisfy some physical or financial need.. If speeding is such a problem in that area, it tells me that many otherwise law abiding drivers are given to going faster than the posted limits. Its not one or two ‘born criminals that go to this area to speed. It’s your mom and dad, your neighbors and friends who are following the natural flow of traffic. It tells me that quite possibly the area is posted too low for the type of road and area it is. Today’s technology has made cars better equipped to travel faster and still be safer than in years past. Technology advanced, but the speed limits on our roads have not. I guarantee that ‘EVERYONE’ is guilty of technically ‘speeding’ at some moment in their day. I live on Main Street, which goes thru our town as the main thoughfare, and it’s posted at 25 miles an hour, even though there is no real use of the front areas of the houses that line Main Street. They, for the most part, all access their homes from the rear. If you were to follow our towns police car thru town, you would find yourself going 40 miles an hour more times than not, but rarely if ever under 35 mph, which is 10 mph over the limit.. So let’s call this what it is in most cases.. It’s the few using their power to effectively ‘oppress the many.. If there is such an amount of speeding on a section of road that you need to put up cameras, there is a problem that needs to be addressed beyond speed enforcement. And please don’t all you fanatics start commenting against me like I’m a f*#king idiot, I’m not. There are certainly circumstances that warrant the better control of traffic speeds, but I’m certain it’s not the norm. Our modern interstate system is still posted at a nationally enforced limit of 55 in most areas.. I know it’s changing, but it’s still 55. That limit is not tied to safety, but to gas consumption rates from the shortages of the 1970’s. Anyone doing that today will possibly be pulled over for going too slow, as did happen to a close friend of mine . So let’s have a discussion, but with open minds about the correct topics. Why is this so hard to do..??

  • Ralph G Mercuri

    And one more comment. When approaching a DUI checkpoint in Pennsylvania, you can turn around if safe to do so, and drive away, not having to go through the process. It’s a fundamental right of an unwarranted search, and also of not having to incriminate yourself. Yes, again to the fanatics. The courts established that it is better to preserve the rights of the many over the need to capture the few.. Sorry..

  • Ralph G Mercuri

    And a second ‘one last comment’ Lol.. Why is anyone coming out against Google, what are they doing..?? Is providing a forum to disseminate information illegal now..??
    Or only if the topic goes against what a few might think..? Or how about more than a few..?
    At what percentage of the population do we suspend the Bill of Rights .?? And then, what do we do about the people who, after coming upon a roadblock or camera or checkpoint,, and then text their friends, or post to Facebook, or tweet, or Instagram, or, well hopefully you get the point..
    Again, let’s trust in the founding father’s, (please don’t bring up the very tired and very faulty assertion that they could never have imagined the technology of today, and bla, bla, bla..) they brought into being an inspired manuscript that was both specific in its intent, but open in its application as to be appropriate for their time and ours, and for the times to come.
    Writings such as this is what I use to know and believe in a Power greater than humankind.These are the inspired words put to paper to bring together a people of the world, to then be used to inspire other people’s of the planet in living in peace, and with the respect for the basic rights and privileges of the individual, who goes on to become part of the whole. This is something Religion can never do. Thank you.

  • carl jacobs

    Totally outside of my experience. The argument against posting the location of a mobile speed camera would have more legitimacy. There is no credible argument against posting the location of a fixed site camera. Knowledge of that location can only facilitate the purpose of the camera at that location.

    Truth be told, however, it doesn’t much matter. Speed cameras are universally despised. Google won’t get any significant pushback on this. The public will see it as a way to neutralize revenue from the cameras. If they don’t make money, they won’t last long.

    Because these cameras are much more about making money than slowing traffic.

  • Baloo Uriza

    No, but OpenStreetMap does.

  • LinuxGuy

    As long as there is poor traffic engineering and predatory ticketing of safe drivers in America, people have a right to know. Nobody can censor telling people what is happening on a public street.

  • PurpleHills

    I’m not sure if this is fraud or not but it seems really unethical. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google starts banning accounts or disregarding submissions from people posting fake cameras.

  • undisclosed location

    Non-limited access roads, I drive within 5 miles an hour of the speed limit most the time. The on-screen reminder of speed limit and how fast you’re going over it on Waze helps me stay legal. However, I really appreciate the warnings of speed traps. When I get a warning, I drop my speed below the speed limit. On the red light cameras, I appreciate the warning because it lets me prepare to hit my brakes the instant the lights turn yellow.

  • Baloo Uriza

    On the red light cameras, I appreciate the warning because it lets me prepare to hit my brakes the instant the lights turn yellow.

    You should be stopping for yellows unless it’s too late for you to do so safely even when the red light cameras aren’t present. Whole point of a yellow is to give time for the intersection to clear before the opposing direction gets a green.

  • undisclosed location

    many places with red light cams run short yellow lights. instead of the minimum length as found in the web page below, you find yellow lights significantly shorter. Short enough you are left with the choice of emergency stop or getting a ticket.

    http://shortyellowlights.com/standards/

  • Baloo Uriza

    There’s a formula for how long yellow lights can be at a minimum. That’s the speed limit divided by 10 plus 1.5.

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