California wildfires: Police warn nav apps could put you in danger

Authorities fear that mapping programs may guide motorists to take unsafe routes.

3 min read

The Los Angeles Police Department is reportedly telling motorists to avoid using navigation apps when attempting to circumvent the region's wildfires.

According to the Los Angeles Times, authorities fear that these programs will guide motorists "onto more open routes -- in this case, streets in the neighborhoods that are on fire." 

However, when Roadshow reached the LAPD for comment on Thursday, they initially acknowledged that they were still investigating how to advise motorists on this issue. A subsequent conversation I had with officer Mike Lopez, LAPD public information officer, offered some clarification: "We're not saying not to use your navigation, but [we advise] to use them with caution anywhere near the fires." Lopez reiterated fears that some programs may lead motorists directly into danger's path.

Some navigation apps, like Google's Waze, provide the ability for users to call out road hazards including weather, heavy traffic, vehicles and objects in the road, or even request roadside assistance. Many, however, do not. 

Lopez acknowledged that certain navigation apps may be smarter than others when it comes to dealing with emergency situations like the LA wildfires, but he urged caution when using all apps, and said that the LAPD would not endorse using a particular program over another in such instances.

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LA authorities are urging motorists to be careful when using navigation apps to avoid the region's wildfires.


I also spoke with Sergeant Frank Preciado of the LAPD, and he noted that officers are strategically posted at the junction of key ingress and egress roads to prevent motorists from inadvertently driving into the path of the wildfires. Above all, local authorities are urging motorists to heed the instructions of police and fire officials, including when it comes to obeying roadblocks. 

According to a Google spokesperson reached for comment:

"To provide access to accurate and useful transportation information, we use algorithmic and manual methods to account for everyday and emergency road closures. These road closures also appear on our LA Fire Crisis Map, embedded as part of our SOS Alert on Search. We'll continue to update the map in real time to address the changing conditions on the ground and help Los Angelenos get around safely."

In an email to Roadshow, Waze spokesperson, Terry Wei, said, "We are the only resource that will have real-time routing, up-to-date evacuation routes and information on open resources like gas stations, etc." According to Waze data, around 110 road segments are closed, and there are 16 shelters available in 16 area cities. Wei also noted that Waze users "can search the word 'Help' to find their nearest shelter, or pan on the map and click on the shelter icon."

Apple did not immediately return a request for comment.

But if social media postings are to be believed, even Waze was at least occasionally befuddled by the region's fast-moving fires. A USA Today article published Thursday afternoon quotes several social media users as saying that Waze was among the mapping programs that failed to recognize the 405 Freeway's fire-related closure. App users experienced problematic routing that directed them toward fire-endangered roads both Wednesday and Thursday, according to the newspaper. 

Southern California is being wracked by wildfires that are destroying homes, businesses and impacting travel. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, the new Skirball fire near Bel-Air has reportedly grown to 475 acres alone, and triggered the 405 Freeway's temporary closure. The fire is estimated to only be 5% contained, and stiff winds are expected to fan the flames today, making firefighters' jobs more difficult. 

Some auto industry watchers are looking at the LA fires and wondering aloud on social media if natural disasters like these could impact the future adoption of self-driving cars. Others are curious if technological steps are being taken to systematically enable local authorities to update mapping services in real-time with relevant information during emergencies.

In September, amidst an altogether different type of natural disaster, Google's Waze Carpool app was turned on in states affected by Hurricane Harvey to enable residents to find ridesharing opportunities. The company also started a Facebook page to crowdsource information on road closures and hazards in the area at the time.

First published Dec. 7, 9:05 a.m. PT.

Update, 10:15 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect new statements made by members of the LAPD.

Update, 10:45 a.m.: Google statement added.

Update, 11:15 a.m.: Waze statement added.

Update, 4:25 p.m.: USA Today article references added.