Drivers using cop-alert device to avoid police

By Demian Bulwa
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Stanley Lew, like many drivers, claims strict deference to all traffic signs and signals. At least most of the time.

"We are not perfect human beings," the 52-year-old San Jose resident says.

So, during the two-hour commute to his Novato auto shop, Lew uses a program on his GPS device that alerts him to spots where police often cite speeders, to cameras that catch red-light runners, and to school zones.

"Camera alert," a voice tells him on 19th Avenue in San Francisco as he approaches one of the red-light cameras that the city uses to dole out $437 tickets.

Such programs, made for Global Positioning System units and smart phones, are the latest entry in the cat-and-mouse game between cops and drivers, who clearly relish the sport.

Police officers have mixed feelings. Some say the technology gets people to slow down, while others see a distraction with little value.

"Bad drivers are bad drivers," said Walnut Creek traffic Sgt. Mike McLaughlin. "If they get a warning, that takes care of it that time. But there's going to be another time."

The programs - in particular ones like Trapster, a smart phone application that allows users to tell each other about speed traps in real time - marry location-aware technology and Wikipedia-style information sharing.

When a user reaches a location, data that fellow users have contributed about that spot are made available on the smart phone or GPS unit. With enough users, the data - and the users themselves - can be rated for credibility.

Many services tied to GPS involve a barter: As consumers gain information, they allow their movements to be tracked and sold to mapping or marketing firms.

"Knowing where you are, what's around you and where you want to go is fundamental to what humans need," said Brady Forrest, chairman of Where 2.0, a conference on location-based technology that will be held in San Jose in March.

Thousands of helpers
At any given time, tens of thousands of people are using programs that give locations of speed traps, red-light cameras and other potentially costly potholes, boosters say.

Drivers in some areas of the country may get more use out of the devices than others. California, for instance, does not allow police to catch speeders by using unmanned cameras - whose locations are a major feature of the GPS programs.

Tapping into anger
The systems carry catchy names like Phantom Alert - that's the one Lew uses - and GPS Angel. Their backers try to tap into populist anger, saying many tickets are bogus and handed out only to raise money for big government.

They have joined a battle that has been fought with radar and laser detectors (legal in California) and jammers (illegal); sprays intended to obscure license plates from cameras (illegal); and the simple flashing of headlights to warn others of a speed trap up ahead.

Recently, makers of GPS maps have begun offering some of the data free, putting pressure on companies like Phantom Alert. The company charged Lew $100 for lifetime access to its database, which must be downloaded onto a GPS unit.

Trapster is free. The firm is betting it can turn a profit someday through location-based ads, or by hocking a "pro" version with added features, or by selling data it has collected about users to third parties.

Officials' qualms
The mainstreaming of the idea places a premium on real-time information from users, such as the location of a single cop with a laser gun or a DUI checkpoint. That makes some police and public officials queasy.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored laws barring drivers from holding cell phones and text messaging, said motorists trading tips about speed traps while they're supposed to be watching the road "sounds like the worst of all possible worlds."

Pete Tenereillo, who launched Trapster two years ago, said logging a trap on a phone takes three keystrokes and is simpler than punching an address into a digital map while driving, which is legal.

On a recent day, he drove around Oakland as a mounted iPhone gave occasional warnings.

"Red-light camera," said a voice that, according to Tenereillo, belonged to an actor named Diane. The program asked him to "rate this trap," thumbs-up or thumbs-down. He went with thumbs-up, having seen the camera for himself.

Tenereillo said some of the 747,000 locations nationally of speed traps or cameras listed in Trapster were entered by his staff, while others came from "power users" who comb municipal Web sites and listen to police scanners. Most, though, came from everyday users, he said.

It is their level of interest - and more so, their desire to chip in - that will decide whether a community can be built around avoiding traffic tickets.

Copyright 2009 San Francisco Chronicle

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