March 22, 2011 -- Smartphone applications that share information about police D.U.I. checkpoints and speed traps may be a boon for drivers hoping to avoid tickets (or worse), but a group of U.S. senators says they're nothing but a public safety hazard.
In fact, they think the apps are so dangerous that in a letter to Apple, Research In Motion, which makes BlackBerrys, and Google today, Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) urged the companies to remove the applications that they say help drunk drivers evade police.
"We know that your companies share our desire to end the scourge of drunk driving and we therefore would ask you to remove these applications from your store unless they are altered to remove the DUI/DWI checkpoint functionality," the letter says.
In the Apple App Store, applications like PhantomAlert, Trapster, iRadar and others claim to help drivers avoid speed traps, police checkpoints and other traffic stops by crowdsourcing the reports of other drivers and disseminating police warnings.
Considering that more than 10,000 Americans die in drunk-driving crashes every year, with one drunk-driving related death every 50 minutes, the senators say that it's a matter of "grave concern" to them that smartphone customers can download the D.U.I.-checkpoint-dodging applications so easily.
In the letter, they cite a recent USA Today article in which a police captain says the popular checkpoint alert apps are troubling.
"If people are going to use those, what other purpose are they going to use them for except to drink and drive?" Capt. Paul Starks of the Montgomery County Police Department told the paper. "They're only thinking of one consequence, and that's being arrested. They're not thinking of ending the lives of other motorists, pedestrians, other passengers in their cars or themselves."
But Joe Scott, CEO and founder of PhantomAlert, a Harrisburg, Pa., company that makes a popular checkpoint alert app for all kinds of smartphones, said he thought the senators' letter was a "knee-jerk reaction."
"If they really understood what we are doing and aim to achieve, they would actually support us," he said.
"We're doing exactly what the police departments are doing -- putting up PSAs and letting people know there are checkpoints -- to deter people from drinking and driving," Scott said, adding that the only real difference is that his app shares the information in real-time.
A driver who may have been drinking could look at all the D.U.I. checkpoints highlighted on PhantomAlert's map and decide to take a cab or catch a ride with a friend, he said.
Apple, Research in Motion and Google did not immediately respond to requests from comment from ABCNews.com.
Apps Crowdsource Reports From Drivers on the Road
When Scott first submitted his application to Apple's App Store, he said, Apple flagged the app citing concerns similar to those raised by the senators. But Scott said he convinced Apple that the app improved -- not hindered -- public safety.
Scott also said that law enforcement has supported him, saying that the crowdsourced nature of the app creates a "multiplier effect."
Not only does the app alert drivers to checkpoints reported by the police, it shares alerts reported by other drivers. The service tries to verify user-submitted reports, but sometimes false reports remain, which might give the impression that there are more checkpoints than there actually are, potentially further deterring drunk driving, he said.
When asked if he was aware of customers using the app to evade D.U.I. checkpoints while on the road, he said, "Our users just want to get a fair chance to be safe drivers and slow down when they're supposed to. ...The guys that drink and drive aren't smart enough to use our app."