the lead

How to avoid all those new speed cameras

[Tech]

The cameras aren't going away, but this app might make the tickets vanish.

cobra

Motorists could be under a speed camera’s watch in half of Chicago — at 50 locations — by year’s end. But there’s a new tool to stay ahead of the ever-present robotic eye, courtesy of local programmers.

The Cobra iRadar version 3.2 is an app that sends an alert to motorists’ iPhones when they approach a speed trap or a red-light camera, showing on a map where the camera is located and how many yards away it is.

cobraappThe app creates a social community of travelers who can share real-time traffic information while receiving locations of speed cameras, red-light cameras, caution areas, speed traps and real-time alerts to radar laser activity.

It’s developed by 53-year-old Galewood company Cobra Electronics, known for CB radios and radar detectors, which also has hired four in-house developers to design apps for futuristic products it won’t yet disclose.

When a motorist wants to share information with the iRadar 3.2, he can turn on an automatic-share capability and let it run. To verify an alert, he taps one of two large buttons that pop up on the screen. The goal is to keep the driver’s eyes on the road rather than asking him to scroll through options.

No information is collected about the user; it’s all about the location. The app’s data get updated twice a day with new camera locations.

“We are simply giving (drivers) a heads-up. We’re not jamming anything,” says Cobra Electronics marketing director Chris Kooistra.

The company occasionally runs into skepticism from police and elected officials, but Kooistra says it’s hard to argue against people being more alert and cautious.

Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Pete Scales agrees: “Anything that builds awareness and reminds Chicago motorists to slow down and obey the traffic laws is great.”

He just asks that motorists check the app before they leave the house, and not while they are driving.

The app costs $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year. It also comes with the purchase of a Cobra brand radar detector ($99 to $299), which provides live radar detection.

Challenges: The app update comes just as Cobra Electronics faces tough competition, including from popular apps such as Trapster and Waze. Trapster has 16 million users; Waze has 50 million; and Cobra’s laser radar-detector version has 1 million.

Also, new technology could lead to new legal standards. “As long as you don’t violate other laws, it’s within your purview to warn people that there’s a cop here,” says Jessica Levinson, who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Ultimately, a higher court would have to rule among a variety of local rules about app-based traffic warnings, she says.

Vision: Cobra sees value in its verification of the data that iRadar users share and its database of verified speed and red-light cameras and dangerous intersections provided by municipal police departments, traffic bureaus, state transportation agencies and proprietary data partners.

Photo by J. Geil