Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The navigation app will help drivers in Los Angeles avoid dangerous left turns at busy intersections.
The first time I drove to a friend’s house in a busy suburb near Washington, D.C., I loyally followed the navigation app on my phone. I weaved through neighborhoods turning left here and right there. Then, I froze.
The app had led me to a busy intersection without traffic lights where I’d have to make a left turn across four lanes of oncoming traffic. I had never felt more like the frog in “Frogger.”
Some drivers call these sorts of turns the “Waze left,” as the app has gotten plenty of complaints for directing users to make risky left turns in heavy traffic in order to save a couple of minutes in travel time. As reported by Quartz, there are at least five ways to crash while making those turns. The National Highway Safety Transportation Administration reports that 60 percent of collisions at intersections involve a car turning left—and that’s with traffic signals.
So Waze responded. As was first reported by CBS, the company has launched a special feature for Los Angeles users that prioritizes safety over time. The feature (which can be turned off) will take users on a slightly longer route to minimize left turns at heavy intersections.
“These intersection are legal. But especially in Los Angeles, it involves crossing six lanes of traffic or crossing without a stop sign or guard,” Julie Mossler, Waze’s head of brand and global marketing, tells CityLab. “So those really are the intersections we’re most interested in.
Currently, the features relies on a year’s worth of data collected by Waze employees and volunteers in the L.A. area. As with other Waze features, it will also allow users to feed information about difficult-to-navigate intersections back to the app. “If they cross an intersection that feels risky to them or uncomfortable, they can let us know and we’ll see if it’s something we can circumnavigate,” says Mossler.
She adds that the hyperlocal feature, which will soon be made available in New Orleans, was a response to “community requests.” According to Quartz, there is at least one Wave user for every four car commuters in the L.A. metro area. And there, they call the Waze left “suicide.”
Navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps (which uses some information from Waze) aren’t just about getting people from point A to B in the shortest time. Researchers in Barcelona, for example, are exploring how GPS devices can lead users on the most scenic—albeit longer—routes by measuring the beauty of a specific location. And in New York, two city council members want Google Maps to put pedestrian safety first by reducing left turns at signaled intersections, even if that means drivers taking longer routes.
Keeping drivers safe and informed, Mossler adds, has always been a priority for Waze. The company works closely with individual communities to bring specific features to specific communities. In Brazil, where driving days are rationed due to overcrowded roads, the company launched a feature that keeps drivers updated on which cars are allowed on the road each day. The company is also working on a safety feature to alert users in Brazil of “high-crime” routes, according to CBS. It relies on city-level crime data verified by a “third party.” But an ACLU spokesman told CBS that the feature could be controversial and “perpetuate inequalities,” given that such data is often flawed.
Last October, a couple was killed in Brazil after following Waze directions that led them into an area where drug gangs are prevalent.
But Mossler says that particular feature, which doesn’t have a launch date, isn’t meant to isolate any community or wipe any neighborhoods off the map. “We've been deeply thoughtful about this, and we're working with a third-party company who can simply help us show to drivers in the Rio area if certain areas are high-crime,” she says. “This does not remove the neighborhood from the map or force the driver to avoid the area; it simply asks them to confirm that they do want to route to that area.”