Incident 234: Waze Allegedly Frequently Routed Drivers through the Town of Los Gatos, Blocking Its Single Wildfire Escape Route

Description: Waze app was blamed by Los Gatos town residents for contributing to high wildfire hazard risk via allegedly routing weekend beach-going drivers through their neighborhoods, effectively choking off their single escape route in the event of a medical emergency or wildfire.
Alleged: Waze developed and deployed an AI system, which harmed Los Gatos residents.

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Dickinson, Ingrid. (2019-09-06) Incident Number 234. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

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The Los Gatos Historical Society, which is an advocate for quality of life in Los Gatos historical neighborhoods, today announced a campaign to assist the town's staff in raising visibility with the federal and state government, with Google investors, and with Google executives to bring an end to the life-threatening situation caused by Waze algorithms.

In the aftermath of the Paradise fire, which killed 85 people in the worst wildfire disaster in the state's history, towns across California are re-evaluating their wildfire risk factor and their wildfire escape routes.

The town of Los Gatos, according to a recent wildfire assessment report published by USA Today, scores a higher wildfire hazard risk than that of Paradise. Contributing to this higher risk factor is the single escape route for Los Gatos residents living in the urban-wildlife zone and in the Glenridge and Almond Grove historic neighborhoods.

The Google Waze app has choked off this single escape route by sending thousands of weekend beach-going drivers through these historic neighborhoods. In the event of a medical emergency or wildfire, these residents are literally trapped. With their single escape route blocked by Waze-routed traffic, these residents are living a death sentence imposed by Google.

In the event of a wildfire, which is a common occurrence in the Santa Cruz mountains each summer, the death toll could be far higher than what recently happened in Paradise.

Google has been notified multiple times of this life-threatening risk but has chosen to ignore the red flags with little regard for human lives at risk from wildfires.

Congress has set up a special committee to investigate wildfire risk. That committee has been alerted to this public safety hazard knowingly caused by Google and will be factoring this into their investigation.

Wildfires are a serious threat to the residents of Los Gatos, said Jeff Siegel, President of the Los Gatos Historical Society. "Google's Waze algorithms have created a life-threatening situation for our many residents who live in the urban wildlife urban zone of historic Los Gatos by blocking fire evacuation routes created by the regional Fire agency. Google's indifference to the outcome of their algorithms reveals a corporate arrogance and disregard for human life not unlike what we saw from PG&E leading up to the Paradise inferno."

Google's Waze App Blocks Wildfire Escape Route for Residents Living in the Los Gatos Hills and Historic Neighborhoods

A Los Gatos man is waging war with Waze, the Alphabet Inc.-owned routing app that he says endangers his neighborhood by diverting traffic heading to and from Santa Cruz on summertime weekends.

Jeffrey Siegel, a tech consultant who founded the Los Gatos Historical Society this year to advocate for the preservation of the town’s historic homes and other neighborhood causes, says the traffic diverted from Highway 17 would amount to a “death sentence” for people in the Glenridge and Almond Grove neighborhoods in the event of a wildfire.

Siegel — who said his neighbors include employees from big tech companies including Google, Apple, Facebook and Cisco Systems — hasn’t made headway with Waze by talking with several members of its government affairs team.

The company didn’t return a request for comment from the Business Journal.

“If you saw the Paradise fire photographs, a lot of people died in their cars, trapped in traffic and they instantly died in an inferno,” Siegel said, referring to the Butte County town that was wiped off the map in a deadly fire last year that killed 85 people and caused $16.5 billion in damage. “That’s exactly what the potential is to happen here, especially in the August-September months when the wildfire hazards are super high.”

Siegel pointed to USA Today's recent investigation into wildfire risks across the western U.S.

The newspaper measured the wildfire hazard potential for 5,000 communities in 11 states, ranking each on a scale from 1 to 5. Los Gatos ranked at 4.06 — more susceptible to wildfire than Paradise, which scored a 3.81. (San Jose got a 3.29 and Saratoga got a 3.96.)

“Traffic congestion along the Highway 17 corridor, which includes the community of Los Gatos, does present a unique challenge for us with respect to a wildfire occurring either along Highway 17 or adjacent to the communities that are affected by that traffic,” Santa Clara County Fire Capt. Bill Murphy told the Business Journal. “The traffic congestion does affect, ultimately, how we can respond to that when a wildfire occurs.”

Siegel said the traffic in his neighborhood has gotten noticeably worse in the last three years, which he suspects is a result of the Bay Area’s growing population and the increased use of routing apps that send drivers to the backroads when highways are backed up with traffic.

A drive to Safeway that takes five minutes during the week can take 45 on the weekend, he said.

“It would probably take (Waze) 10 minutes to barely modify any part of an algorithm to change this,” Siegel said. “They probably have one that says ‘Here’s the places not to go’ and they just have to put this route on that list.”

It's not the first time Los Gatos residents have rallied against Waze for sending beach traffic through neighborhoods.

In 2017, Debbie Moessinger launched a petition around Waze's traffic issues in east Los Gatos, the Mercury News reported at the time.

Other complaints surfaced in 2015, as detailed on a report from Channel 5.

Los Gatos resident: Waze a 'death sentence' to neighbors in the event of a wildfire