How Waze Has Changed Driving, For Better And For Worse

It's made me more aware of certain things on the road — but possibly less mindful.

It was August; California was boiling with heat; and I'd mapped out a plan that would find me driving nearly 6,000 miles, mostly back and forth between grandparents in the Midwest. I was looking forward to doing so with my phone, which I could do without hesitation or equivocation, because my wife — who hates when I use electronic devices, especially near our daughter, and who in general prefers spontaneity and inefficiency — would be flying. I readied for the first leg of an epic summer: just me, a 5-year-old, and an open road to Missouri.

Leaving Los Angeles on a Friday can be ugly. I had only moved to L.A. a few months prior, after five years in the Middle East, where my wife was a foreign correspondent, and pre-Waze, I might have puzzled over whether to take the 10 to the 710, or even surface streets, such as the 90 to Slauson and then the 110, for instance. But not only does Waze tell you what is likely the best path through life at that moment, the app (unlike Google Maps) is also enhanced by users, who self-report police activity, road hazards, traffic conditions, and more. So there was no doubt: I simply loaded the car, buckled Loretta into her seat, and followed the voice commands. Waze eased us ever eastward, up the 210 to the 15, which took us north and east, until at last we reached Interstate 70 in Nevada.

Crossing the Rocky Mountains, rather than admiring the view, I found myself staring at my phone, which at that moment lit up with tiny icons indicating trouble. I nosed the car into a spot among what felt like thousands of others, none of us moving. I held the wheel. I looked at the phone. For the first time ever, I even tapped on the "report" function and indicated "Traffic Jam – Standstill," doing my part to enhance this digital community of Wazers. I rolled down the windows and took a deep breath of mountain air. Then I looked again at the phone. Nothing, it seemed, would alter the fact we were stuck on a mountain pass.

"Daddy, why are you staring at your phone?"

I turned it off, opened the door, and started telling the little girl what I knew about the continental divide and bears and why snow melts and a guy named John Denver. Hours later, we passed the burnt remains of a vehicle, which is what had stopped us all.

Later that night, crossing into Kansas after dark, I found my keenest reason yet to consider the social side of Waze. Eager to find a hotel room, I was going perhaps a few miles faster than normal, when Waze blinked with an alert, "Hazard – On Road." In L.A., I'd been mostly ignoring these warnings, whether it was "Hazard – Shoulder – Vehicle Stopped" or "Police – Visible" or "Accident – Minor." In a traffic-choked city during peak commuting hours, when you've watched something like 30,000 other people merge at slow speeds and without incident from Wilshire onto the 405, you can just go with the flow.

But have you ever been to Kansas? From at least one high hill, you can see portions of four different states. In such a vast space, there is a lot you might see. And what I almost didn't see, late that night — "Hazard – On Road" — was something gigantic. Not just a tire but one of those industrial-sized giants. (I think they use them for mining vehicles? Or corn-gathering machines?)

Exhilarated and grateful, aware my daughter wasn't watching, I moved smoothly and without fuss into the other lane. That tire was huge! I tapped on the warning, discovering user Kate2456 (or something like that), and while toggling my eyes from the road to the phone, from the phone to the road, I realized not only could I give this Wazer a kind of "thumbs up," I could also message her.

"Thanks," I wrote. "That was scary!"

Kate23545 wrote back.

"No problem, drive safe out there."

Back in L.A. this fall, having driven all those miles with Waze, having earned points by reporting and confirming, such that my profile had been upgraded from Waze Baby to Waze GrownUp to something called Waze Knight — earning my on-screen avatar a tiny sword and putting me among the top 4% of high scorers in the state, a dubious achievement about which I was possibly overly proud — yet I was sad to discover the screen in southern California to be a massive jumble of traffic and hazards and police activity. It was simply too much to heed, let alone any chance I might thank any individual users. In Kansas, Waze had felt profound. Here, the app was simply a way to get places, quickly.

Then it was a very big day: My daughter's first morning of kindergarten. After all those years trying to protect her and guide her through life, she'd be on her own. On this important morning, Waze pointed us down Pacific to Pico, where we hopped onto the 10. Icons indicated traffic up ahead, but the sea of brake lights was also a clue. Way to go, Waze. Then, from Wilshire, the app suggested skipping a left on busy Warner Ave for a counter-intuitive left on Holmby, which was an intersection that didn't have a light. This pleased me, especially when I discovered we'd approached the school from a less trafficked back route.

With several minutes to spare, I followed Waze right to the front door of an elementary school in a new city I am trying to call home. Outside room 17, my little girl waved and I choked up a little and on the way back to Venice I was still soaring with what felt like accomplishment. It was the kind of expansive and thoughtful mood that might find one, for instance, inclined to tap an app and report a "Hazard," so other users would know what to to avoid and how to keep hurling ahead, as fast as possible.

On a busy corner on the west side of Los Angeles, I was preparing to make a right — as Waze was telling me to do — when I realized that standing beside a stalled car (the "Hazard" I'd reported) was a woman, looking panicked, holding a baby. My car was humming; my gas tank was nearly full; I was a human in control. Traffic streamed by, carrying me with it. I didn't stop. To get out of my car and put my phone down and help that woman is something I still wish I'd done. Instead, I did what I was told. Waze got me home quickly, as it's designed to do. For that woman, there was no button to press.