Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010.
For many drivers, the relationship with the Waze traffic app is a lot like a romance. At first, it’s all love songs and clear sailing, and amazement at the fast, traffic-free routes that the voice of your choice sends you on.
“I never knew life could be like this,” we thought as we sailed down a service road at 55 mph, laughing at the stalled drivers on the parallel stretch of Long Island Expressway a few hundred feet away. Or, “I never even knew this road existed, Waze, and I’ve lived here all my life. Waze, I love you!”
But soon enough, little cracks appeared in the relationship, just as they do in our romantic bondings. For one thing, Waze does not care how hard we work for our money. It thinks nothing of telling me to take two expensive toll bridges to get from Long Island to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, like the Throgs Neck and then the Triborough, when the 59th Street Bridge could have done the same work for free.
“You don’t care how much I spend, do you?” I mumbled to Waze.
“I was trying to save you time, you cheapskate,” I imagined hearing it shout back.
Many of us would gladly pay the extra tolls if we knew this odd and expensive route was going to save an hour in traffic, but what if it cut our travel time by only 90 seconds? Was Waze just throwing our money away like it grows on trees? Does Waze not know how hard we work for every dollar?
And she (mine is set to voice a British lass, Kate) does this one other thing that can crimp the relationship, too. She tries to kill me. But the company, which is owned by Google, says that’s going to stop. At least in Los Angeles and New Orleans.
One of the ways Waze tries to save drivers’ time is by telling it to take left turns that, if we thought about them beforehand, we’d realize were very risky. But what happens is, you don’t realize until you’re already at the intersection that Waze’s long-term plan for the trip has you taking a left against the most horrendous oncoming traffic in town, a move that should only be tried on a reality TV show called “Not This Time, Loser.”
And then, as people behind you honk, and you scream, “How is there not a left-turn lane and signal here? It’s like a form of human sacrifice,” you can either try to get over and make a whole bunch of rights, or you can just go for it.
It’s a real problem, and not just at particularly busy intersections, or only in Los Angeles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 60 percent of all traffic accidents involve a vehicle turning left. In New York City, Waze is particularly enamored of left turns against oncoming traffic onto Second Avenue in midtown that are only possible at midnight, and only then in an armored personnel carrier.
But now, Waze has introduced a setting that will let Los Angeles drivers prioritize traffic safety over travel time. That setting will keep them away from dangerous left turns, even if it means taking a somewhat longer route to do so.
That’s smart, and given how Waze works, easy. The program figures out which way users ought to go by determining how fast other users are going, and how many of them there are. It stands to reason that if an intersection has thousands of people an hour coming through it going straight, and no left-turn signal, a driver doesn’t want to try to turn in front of that herd.
The company says the feature that allows drivers to avoid dangerous lefts will be rolled out in New Orleans soon. Hopefully, Long Island and New York City won’t be far behind.
We’re busy enough trying to kill each other on the roads here without having computers take sides in the battle.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.