We've written a lot about the dangers of distracted driving, particularly texting and driving. Say what you will about Oprah Winfrey, but she's right when she insists that no one can safely text and drive.
However, there are a couple of instances where texting and driving make for a good combination -- the difference being that in these cases, no one's texting behind the wheel.
The hydrogen fuel-cell Tyrano big rig from Vision Industries
The hydrogen fuel-cell Tyrano big rig from Vision IndustriesEnlarge Photo
Case in point: in Detroit, big rigs often take shortcuts through the predominantly Hispanic area of southwest Detroit. As an economically depressed community and one where Spanish, not English, is frequently the language of choice, it wasn't easy for residents to complain about these infractions or draw attention from the media. So local public radio station WDET partnered with Public Radio International, as well as a PRI show called "The Takeaway" and a few other sources to explore the possibility of using text messages as a means of reportage.
In practice, it worked like this: WDET told residents to text in the word "truck" whenever they saw a big rig travelling illegally in their neighborhood. Then, residents texted in their location and the truck's license plate. That helped WDET create a map of (alleged) infractions. The concept is kind of like a low-tech version of CNN.com's iReport section, except it's much faster and much more direct.
2011 Dodge Charger Pursuit police vehicle
2011 Dodge Charger Pursuit police vehicleEnlarge Photo
Halfway around the world, in Johannesburg, South Africa, an anonymous Twitter user who goes by the name PigSpotter sends his followers updates about roadblocks and speed traps. As he/she says in his/her profile, "Let's help each other expose where cops are hiding and trapping daily."
PigSpotter's 19,700+ followers clearly appreciate the heads-up, but the local police aren't happy at all. In fact, they're running an investigation and are threatening to press charges on the grounds that he/she is "defeating the ends of justice". We're not sure exactly what that means (or if it's a real charge); all we know for sure is that there are an unusually large number of traps and road blocks in the J-burg area, and police seem eager to keep it that way. (Some are suggesting that PigSpotter might be getting help from the inside. Screenwriters, we smell a movie.)
After the Detroit project wrapped up, John Keefe from radio station WNYC (another partner organization) said that the response to the texting campaign "wasn't overwhelming. But it was enough for the local station to develop some stories around it." It also gave members of the community a voice, made them more informed about their rights, and probably made truckers a little more wary of deviating from their legal paths, since they knew they were being watched. Taken to the extreme, this sort of community policing could devolve into the kind of vicious tattle-talery that went on under the KGB, but all things in moderation, right?
As for Johannesburg, we're inclined to side with PigSpotter. We're not experts on Johannesburg's legal system, but we're guessing that it's not illegal to take photos of policemen or mention what they're doing on public roadways. PigSpotter isn't interfering in the police activities, he's merely reporting on them. Seems legal to us, but if you have a contrary opinion, feel free to let us know.