February 25, 2024

Digital Domain: Helping Drunken Drivers Avoid Tickets, but Not Wrecks

Last month, Senators Harry Reid, Charles E. Schumer, Frank R. Lautenberg and Tom Udall asked Apple, Google and Research In Motion, the maker of BlackBerrys, to remove apps from their online stores that help drunken drivers evade sobriety checkpoints.

On March 23, the day after the letter went out, the group said BlackBerry agreed to pull the apps and thanked the group for bringing them to its attention.

Apple and Google? Nothing.

An Apple spokeswoman said the company would not comment. A Google spokesman said the apps did not violate the company’s content policies.

In supplying the precise locations of sobriety checkpoints, these apps do nothing illegal. They do not supply sexually explicit material, nor do they bully anyone, nor do they embody hate speech. Those are three of the nine categories that Google forbids for Android apps. But it might be time for Google to proscribe a 10th category: enablers of drunken driving.

Sobriety checkpoints — locations where officers stop some drivers and perform breath tests on those suspected of being drunk — are not used primarily to catch impaired drivers and issue tickets: the number of intersections that can be covered is too few for the actual arrests to make much of a dent. The checkpoints are intended to deter drunken driving by simply being out there, vaguely.

J. T. Griffin, vice president for policy at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says, “There’s a difference between a broad announcement that there will be sobriety checkpoints in a general location versus a specific location that can be downloaded to your smartphone with the intent of allowing a drunk driver to evade a checkpoint.”

In 2009, 10,839 people were killed by alcohol-impaired drivers, which was about a third of total traffic fatalities for the year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“There’s a face on every one of those 10,839,” said James McMahon, chief of staff of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “There’s a mourning family behind every one.”

The total would be significantly greater were it not for the deterring effect of sobriety checkpoints that are permitted to exist as a widely publicized, but geographically indeterminate, presence.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened scientists to review 23 studies that looked at the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints, the panel concluded that the checkpoints typically reduced alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent. That was way back in 2002, well before the arrival of smartphone apps like PhantomAlert and Trapster, which warn of the locations of speed traps, red light cameras and other kinds of alerts, in addition to sobriety checkpoints. They can feed GPS navigation devices, too.

PhantomAlert’s iPhone app boasts that the company’s database has 400,000 “enforcement” locations. “See Them Before They See You!” it cheerily advises.

Buzzed, a smartphone app that shows nothing but sobriety checkpoints, is matched with a Web site with a self-explanatory address, EveryCheckpoint.com.

PhantomAlert was one of the apps that Research In Motion pulled from its online store at the request of the senators. R.I.M. did not respond to requests for comment. But Joseph Scott, chief executive of PhantomAlert, defended real-time alerts of sobriety checkpoints as a convenience to law-abiding citizens who do not want to be delayed by a checkpoint. “Assuming someone who gets a D.U.I.-checkpoint alert is going to drink and drive is like assuming anyone who owns a gun is a murderer,” he said.

Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said that two years ago, PhantomAlert broadcast the existence of sobriety checkpoints in a general area, but without real-time location information. “The original concept was it could deter someone from driving drunk because there might have been a D.U.I. checkpoint on the way home and one didn’t know for sure,” she said. “Today, the way the program is used, it defeats the purpose of deterring illegal behavior.”

Mr. Scott says that he is talking with Research In Motion about positioning his company as a “responsible corporate citizen.” He is offering to suspend real-time reports of sobriety checkpoint locations. In an e-mail he sent me last week, he also said that he wanted to send out a joint news release with Research In Motion, “praising the senators for fighting the epidemic of drinking and driving and for giving us the chance to help them tackle this huge problem.”

Before he was flooded with civic-mindedness, however, he had taken a different tack, complaining to me that it wasn’t fair for the senators to single out him and the online app stores. “People have formed Facebook and Twitter groups to alert people of D.U.I. checkpoints, but no one is going after Facebook or Twitter,” he told me two weeks ago.

Those Facebook and Twitter feeds are not going to be particularly useful to the inebriated driver, however. It’s not the transmission of checkpoint information, in any form, that poses the public health problem. It’s when checkpoint information is transmitted instantly and precisely and is automatically incorporated into navigational software.

SOBRIETY checkpoints are the rare case in which the public interest would best be served with information that is less precise than technology is capable of providing. General alerts are good: they help spread the word and deter drunken driving. But they should blanket the town rather than show up as pushpins on a smartphone’s street map.  

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=e697b1dfb3d0d480474747a36953f017

Speak Your Mind