I live off of Hawaii Kai Drive and frequently see a gang of Honolulu police officers posted up along the makai-bound stretch during morning rush hour.

It’s quite the scene, with three or four chase officers standing on the sidewalk or handing tickets to scofflaws while another officer hides behind an unmarked car, pointing a gun-like, speed-detecting device at oncoming traffic.

On one hand, I always wonder why their sting operation targets Hawaii Kai’s busy parents and hard-working citizens as they rush off to work and school, yet they completely ignore the nearby knuckleheads with screaming motorcycles and zooming cars who race across the Keahole Street bridge in the evenings, especially on weekends, and presumably after a few drinks at The Shack.

Navigation apps like Google Maps provide drivers with real-time data on traffic congestion and driving times, even across multiple routes.

Navigation apps like Google Maps provide drivers with real-time data on traffic congestion and driving times, even across multiple routes.

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Seems like easy pickings, either way, so why not spread the love?

On the other hand, speeding is an offense, regardless of the location or the perpetrator, so there goes that argument.

I’ve read again and again how smartphone apps, specifically Waze, let users alert each other of accidents, traffic slowdowns, construction and police activity, such as speed traps. Having seen HPD’s finest posted up for the umpteenth time, and feeling angry at the thought of yet another poor sap getting ticketed as yet another speeding and inebriated sap goes unticketed, I wondered if the smartphone era could help HPD figure out where to set their traps for maximum revenue, um, I mean, safety.

Here’s my theory: Google Maps, Waze (which is owned by Google), and other navigation apps can tell you — to the minute — how long it will take to drive from point A to point B using multiple routes. They do this using current and historical data gathered from everyone using their apps.

The Waze smartphone app allows users to alert others to areas where police are present.

The Waze smartphone app allows users to alert others to areas where police are present.

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Google Maps, for instance, knows that, at 2:14 p.m. on a Wednesday, it’s going to take me 27 minutes to get to Aloha Tower via H1 or 33 minutes to get there via Ala Moana Boulevard. It even highlights in yellow and red the exact portions of the route where traffic is slower than usual.

That’s amazing! And, it’s all based on real-time data from actual drivers.

What if HPD knew that, for example, drivers averaged 18 mph over the posted speed limits on Keahole Street between 6 and 11 p.m. on Friday evenings. Would that matter? Or do they just set up speed traps in areas that are target-rich?

So I reached out to HPD, initially to ask what they thought about apps that warn people of speed traps. Their spokesperson, Sarah Yoro, of their Media Liaision Office, had this to say:

“We want to remind the public that it is against the law to speed. We encourage everyone to drive safely and obey the speed limit.”

OK, speeding is against the law. But I then wondered how they selected their target areas. Was big data involved? Any advanced, predictive analytics? How about apps, like Waze?

“Honolulu Police Department has yet to use smartphone apps like Waze,” Yoro explained. “Selecting an area for speed enforcement is based on numerous factors. Generally, speed complaints in neighborhoods and surface streets are addressed by the respective patrol district. The Traffic Division focuses on enforcement on the major freeways and highways. In addition to speed complaints, the Traffic Division focuses on areas where speeding has been a factor in major collisions.”

Yoro concluded that “Smartphone apps like Waze may tip off drivers to police presence, but such apps can be helpful if they get motorists to obey the law.”

Dammit. I hate it when my angry rants are cut short by common sense, traffic laws, and public safety. Yoro’s response threw me off of my initial “why are they always on my street” focus and onto my “data can solve any problem” rant.

So I reached out to Waze, which offers data to local governments through its Connected Citizens Program. The goal of the program is to use traffic data to reduce congestion, accelerate accident response times, and alert Waze app users to traffic events, such as street closures.

The Waze smartphone app allows users to pinpoint areas of traffic congestion as well as their cause, from construction to potholes, and even shows the current speed of traffic flow.

The Waze smartphone app allows users to pinpoint areas of traffic congestion as well as their cause, from construction to potholes, and even shows the current speed of traffic flow.

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With respect to enforcement of speed limits, however, Waze claims it can’t help.

“Waze cannot track and does not share data with authorities to determine where people are frequently speeding,” said Julie Mossler, Head of Global Comms, Policy & Creative Launch at Waze.

Mossler did explain, however, that municipalities could use Waze data to pinpoint areas where collisions frequently occur, and that they may be able to “draw deeper conclusions on mass driver behavior” in the future.

Which all leaves me back at square one: frustrated at the seemingly opportunistic-yet-valid locations of speed traps, yet full of hope for the endless potential of data to make our streets safer and more efficient. I think there’s a business opportunity in there somewhere.

On the efficiency front, Mossler added a few tidbits based on the 32,400 currently active Waze users in Honolulu, all of them bad. From their first Global Driver Satisfaction Survey released a few months back, and out of all U.S. metro areas examined, Honolulu was the most hazardous city when tallying user reports of accidents and roadkill, scored the lowest when it came to road quality and infrastructure, and was “one of the worst traffic metros overall.”

No app can fix all of that.

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.