Field sobriety test
Four U.S. Senators have come out swinging against smartphone apps that reveal DUI checkpoints, allowing potentially intoxicated motorists to find alternate ways to the next whiskey bar. The Senators sent letters to Apple, Google, and Research In Motion asking the companies to remove offending apps, and so far, one of has agreed to their request. Given the nature of apps, however, we're not sure it'll do much good.
The Senators in question -- Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Harry Reid (D-NV), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Tom Udall (D-NM) -- sent their requests to Apple's senior VP of iPhone software, Scott Forstall; Google CEO, Eric Schmidt; and James L. Balsillie and Michael Lazaridis, co-CEOs of RIM. The Senators argument for intruding on the app market was that "Giving drunk drivers a free tool to evade checkpoints, putting innocent families and children at risk, is a matter of public concern." In their letters, the Senators singled out one app by name: PhantomALERT.
Research In Motion has responded, saying that the company will remove offending apps from its BlackBerry App World. Given the nature of the Senators' request, we wouldn't be surprised to see Apple and Google comply, too -- or at least revise their app guidelines to make it harder for developers to provide such functionality. Google said that apps providing data on checkpoints and speed traps operate within its guidelines, but we've seen instances this week -- as recently as yesterday -- of platforms nixing technically "legit" apps that prove offensive to a significant population of users.
And that's fine. After all, Apple, Google, and RIM are responsible for their operating systems, and they have the right to restrict developers' access to it. There are, however, a few problems with the Senators' notion that censoring apps can end drunk driving.
1. There are a lot of apps that show DUI checkpoints. A quick search on iTunes, for example, reveals dozens of apps -- some free, some fairly pricey -- that claim to keep tabs on road blocks. Beyond those, there are dozens more that don't have checkpoint mapping as their primary goal, but include it on their list of features -- apps like Trapster. Nabbing all of those apps may be the responsibility of the platform providers, but finding and monitoring them could prove very, very time-consuming.
2. Given the social nature of apps, any number of applications could incorporate checkpoint data down the line. Even if Apple, Google, and Research In Motion 86ed every app in their arsenals that included roadblock info, there are hundreds if not thousands of others that could provide the same service, in theory. Think of Craigslist: that company didn't intend to be a site for hook-ups when it launched, but that's what the public wanted, and that's what it quickly became known for. Similarly, apps like Google Maps and Waze might not intend to become DUI markup services, but people could easily use them for that if they so chose.
3. PhantomALERT doesn't just work on smartphones. The one app that the Senators mentioned by name in their letters works on popular aftermarket GPS devices made by Garmin and TomTom. It seems a little weird that the Senators didn't send letters to those companies, too. Perhaps they don't understand the technology?
4. Smartphones are booming, and social networking apps are, too. Sooner than we imagine, smartphones will become central to the driving experience, and social networks will continue their expansion into the driver's seat. When everyone has a smartphone and everyone is connected, capable of sharing anything they like at a moment's notice, how will we be able to control the flow of information -- including information about DUI checkpoints? Even an incoming tweet or Facebook post, read aloud through a telematics system, could alert martini-swilling motorists to roadblocks ahead.
5. Apps may be part of the solution, but they're probably just a tiny part. In today's litigious climate, it would be irresponsible (and unwise) for Apple, Google, and others to avoid keeping an eye on the apps built for their operating systems. But their due diligence isn't going to solve the real problem of drunk driving. To do that, you'll need new and sometimes controversial automotive technology: in-car breathalyzers, for example, or even cars that drive themselves. Driver education can't hurt either -- nor can friends looking out for friends.
Bottom line: No one would argue that apps showing DUI checkpoints are a good thing. As civilized people, part of our social contract involves respecting the lives and well-being of our neighbors, so until drunk driving ceases to be a concern, checkpoints are probably a necessary evil. But while censoring apps makes feel-good headlines for politicians, it doesn't begin to get at the root of the problem.