Well, it was bound to happen. The high-tech arms race has escalated once again. No, we're not talking about military weaponry. We're talking about the tech-driven cat-and-mouse game between law-enforcement agencies and motorists when it comes to setting and avoiding speed traps.
It all started, of course, with the radar guns used by police officers to detect speeders. Then came radar detectors used by motorists who wanted to skedaddle faster than posted speed limits. Then police began using laser units which are more effective and more accurate than radar guns and so on and so on.
Now, the latest "upgrade" in this ongoing game of high-tech one-upmanship: Trapster. Trapster is a service developed and run by Pete Tenereillo of Carlsbad, Calif., and is essentially a cell-phone social network that allows motorists to hook up with one another for the purpose of issuing real-time alerts about the location of speed traps.
Trapster works like this: Go to the Web site, and sign up for a free membership. Then download the Trapster software to your cell phone or PDA. Tenereillo said that most current-generation cell phones, Blackberries and other PDA's can accommodate the Trapster software.
Then, you're ready to hit the road. And once you're tooling down the highway, if you spot a state trooper or city cop lying in wait with a radar gun or laser unit, you just need to punch in "pound one" on your cell phone -- or dial a toll-free number. Other users are then alerted on their cell phones or PDA when they approach the same speed trap.
"One great thing about that is that it's hands-free," says Tenereillo. "You don't have to be looking at the phone or even be holding it to be notified of the speed trap -- which, of course, is safer, because you dont have to take your eyes off the road to be notified of the trap."
The more sophisticated cell phones/PDAs can also display a map that displays the exact location of the speed trap. "But obviously, people should pull over if they're going to look at the map," Tenereillo added.
Trapster was launched in April, and while Tenereillo declined to comment on the exact number of subscribers, he did say the site is booming. "We're going crazy, we've had so many people sign up that it's been hard to keep up with," he said. "We initially had some capacity issues as a result, so we had to re-do some of the architecture."
Tenereillo said one thing that surprised him is that "about half of our initial subscribers were soccer moms. But, when you think about it, that makes sense, they're in the car the most, and they take a lot of short trips, driving their kids to and from school, soccer practice, music lessons, etcetera -- so they're the ones getting the worst tickets, like for driving 53 [mph] in a 35 [mph] zone. Those are worse tickets than the ones you get out on the highway because judges show no mercy when it comes to speeding in residential neighborhoods or adjacent surface streets."
In May, Trapster also became integrated with Dash Navigation Inc., an internet-connected GPS device for vehicles that can be mounted on the dashboard. Trapster relies partly on the WiFi technology provided Skyhook Wireless Inc., a Boston-based firm that provides positioning services that depend on various WiFi access points. It also relies in part on satellite-based Global Positioning Systems.
"The reason that Skyhook is a great partner for us is that, if you have a handset that only has GPS, that takes a few minutes after you turn it on before it gets a fix on the location of a speed trap," says Tenereillo. "But Skyhook's WiFi technology is instantaneous; it can tell you immediately if there is a cop with a radar gun in your vicinity."
"Pete needed to get Trapster into as many handsets as possible, as many different types of phones and PDAs as he could, in order to build a large interactive social network," Ted Morgan, Skybook's CEO, explained. "A big challenge for a service like Trapster is that it requires the phone to know its own location. So, by integrating our technology, it enabled Trapster to expand the potential pool of phones they could get service onto.
"We take advantage of the fact that there are WiFi access points almost everywhere in populated areas -- homes, offices, Starbucks stores, etc," Morgan said. "We have crews that go out and survey every street, we've covered over a million miles of road, which covers 70 percent of the population. We've now mapped over 40 million access points."
As mentioned, Trapster also relies in part on satellite-based GPS, but using GPS alone is not enough to ensure "total coverage" for a system like Trapster, Morgan said.
"Our WiFi system works in a way that is similar to GPS, except that, instead of using satellites, we use the WiFi signals that permeate through most populated areas. GPS has some limitations, in that the cell phone manufacturer has to add it to the phone, and GPS also does not work as well in crowded urban areas."
Tenereillo expanded, saying, "What's also great about Trapster is that it can work with handsets that have GPS, or, it can work with handsets that don't have GPS, because of the WiFi technology provided by Skyhook."
One would think that law enforcement would take a dim view of a company/service like Trapster -- since you could look at it as a service that is enabling speeders to escape detection. But both Tenereillo and Morgan point out that the opposite is true.
"We have a quote on our Web site from the National Association of Police Organizations that states a service like Trapster is actually a positive," says Tenereillo. "Because, if one driver warns everyone else that there is a speed trap at a certain location, then everyone slows down -- which, after all, is the whole purpose of a speed trap, getting drivers to slow down."
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