Should You Be Allowed to Use Your iPhone to Avoid the Cops?

The apps that we’ll discuss today are a hot topic. People on both sides of the argument have strong, outspoken opinions and each make good points.

Ultimately, the question boils down to whether or not it’s acceptable for people to build and distribute iPhone apps that are meant to facilitate the breaking of a law without getting caught by the police. Intrigued? Read on!

Criminal-Friendly Apps

News anchors all over the world simply love stories about the dangers of technology gone horribly out of control: cell phones cause cancer, Y2K will kill us all, Facebook addiction melts people’s brains; you know the sort. Normally such stories merit little else than a rolling of my eyes, but a recent surge or reports on one particular area has caught my attention and I believe it merits some discussion.

There is a crop of apps arising across devices, including on our own beloved iPhone, aimed at helping you avoid getting caught in an unlawful act. You can try to spin them however you want, but let’s be honest, the point of these apps is to show you where the cops are so you can run in the other direction.

To my knowledge, there are two categories of these. Interestingly enough, the first has been around for quite some time and didn’t seem nearly as controversial as the second. Perhaps for good reason, perhaps not. Let’s briefly check out these two categories.

It’s important to note that the distinction isn’t quite as clear as I make it below. In truth, these two categories overlap, with many of the apps below covering both areas. However, the marketing for the apps often leans to one side or the other.

Speed Traps and Red Lights

We would all love to say that we are good law abiding citizens who drive the speed limit at all times. This of course is a laughable statement. In Phoenix, where I live, the typical flow of traffic on major highways is consistently ten mph over the speed limit at any given time, unless there is an obvious police car or speed camera, in which case the average speed is usually ten mph under the limit.

Unfortunately, we tend to see the police as the problem or even the bad guys in the situation. Sure, we’re all breaking the law, but everyone seems to be doing just fine with it so there’s no need to bring in any enforcement. When I lived in St. Louis, it was common courtesy to flash your lights at oncoming drivers to inform them that you recently passed a police car taking radar. Rather than looking to make the roads safer, we considered ourselves better people for having the decency to help our fellow drivers not get caught exceeding the speed limit.

In the age of mobile technology, this same spirit of community has led to iPhone apps that allow you to report any speed trap sightings, whether it be a police officer on the side of the road with a radar gun or a fixed speed/red light camera that will photograph you in the act and mail you a ticket.

There are a plethora of these type of apps in the App Store. Here’s a quick list of just some of those that I found with a quick search:

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Trapster

Interestingly enough, most of the chatter that I heard when these apps starting hitting the scene was fairly positive. We all hate getting speeding tickets and here’s a nice new collection of apps that is truly aimed at helping people save money by avoiding these little incidents. The large majority of positive reviews for apps like Trapster proves that plenty of iPhone users out there think this is a great service.

DUI Checkpoints

The apps that have been getting a ton of media attention more recently are those that use the same user-driven cop-reporting methods above, but this time they’re for avoiding DUI checkpoints. This time, developers have hit a nerve.

We may try to justify our speeding habits with a quick, “everyone does it” speech, but most non-drunks are in agreement that drunk driving is a completely unacceptable danger to society. I personally felt immediately angered upon hearing of these apps. Not only are we suddenly helping dangerous drunk drivers not get caught punished before they kill someone, we’re actually giving them something to play with on their phones as they attempt to drive while intoxicated!

A few of the apps specifically aimed a DUI checkpoints include Buzzed, Tipsy, and Checkpointer.

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Buzzed

Can DUI Apps Be Good?

Interestingly enough, the descriptions of the DUI checkpoint apps make it seem like the creators of these utilities either truly believe, or at least want you to believe, that they are trying to make the roads safer. They provide explicit warnings that you shouldn’t drive drunk and some, like the app shown above, even provide taxi service integration to encourage you to get a ride.

Supposedly, the hope is that you’ll see a DUI checkpoint and instead of taking a different route to get home, you’ll realize that drinking and driving is a bad idea and call a cab to bring you home.

I can’t say how most people use these apps because I simply don’t know, however, this does seem to be a little bit like a slight of hand that makes an inherently bad app seem not only acceptable, but downright morally commendable.

After all, without the app, you’re left thinking that there could be a DUI checkpoint anywhere. With the app, you get a false sense of security that as long as you avoid the little dots, there’s no reason not to drive home as long as you can manage to walk to your car without falling down too many times.

A Double Standard?

It’s definitely interesting to view the public’s perception of these two goals. Both are aimed at enabling citizens to break the law without getting caught, but for the most part, people seem to think DUI apps are evil and that speeding apps are useful. The media attention definitely seems to be tipped towards the DUI side.

Admittedly, I can’t deny that driving drunk is a worse offense than following the flow of traffic at a speed above that which is posted. I would like to point out though to anyone using a speed trap app while complaining about DUI apps, that the same arguments apply for both apps. If people decide that one should be banned, it would seem to me that both have to go.

Will These Apps Be Banned?

There is a widespread call for mobile app store owners, or even government officials, to remove DUI checkpoint apps. RIM has already given in to this pressure and removed one such app from their store.

Ultimately, I’m not so sure public databases that help us all break the law are the greatest things for society. But that doesn’t mean I think the apps should be banned by the government because I’m also not sure how it could (or if it should) be seen as illegal to share information as public as the obvious location of a police car. A slightly related precedent exists though in old school radar detectors, which have been banned in many states.

Further, at this point it seems that, like government officials, Apple is in a tight spot. They already receive lots of bad press for overzealous censoring, but now they’re being scolded for allowing apps like this to make it through the review process.

Which road should they take? If they ban the apps they’ll catch flack for cracking down on developers yet again and if they do nothing it looks like they’re encouraging drunk driving! This is definitely not the best PR position to be in. I imagine they’ll simply attempt to ignore the situation and plead ignorance for as long as possible.

What Can You Do?

For those of you who are appalled at the presence of these apps, I see two possible ways to put up a fight aside from the obvious filing of complaints. The first is passive, don’t download the apps. By doing this, you submit your vote to Apple and the developers that these apps aren’t good for the community. The same applies if you approve of them, every download tells Apple that their is another person who thinks the apps should be allowed.

The second, more devious idea that was recently suggested to me is to encourage your friends and family to download the apps and flood the systems with faulty claims. They all rely on users to report sightings, so if you want to make drunks avoid your neighborhood, simply lie and say that the place is buzzing with cops. It’s a temporary solution to be sure, but you’ll probably smile a lot while you do it.

What Do You Think?

Where do you weigh in on this situation? Do you think it’s bad to use an app to tell others about the presence of a speeding camera? If not, does that justify the same system being used for DUI checkpoints?

Also, based on your opinion, should Apple ban all police-spotting-related apps? And does the government have any business in this situation? We want to hear your opinions!