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Tweeting checkstops is risky business

Tipping off drunks puts us all in danger

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City police conduct roadside stops to look for law-breaking drivers. Is it OK to warn motorists?

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

City police conduct roadside stops to look for law-breaking drivers. Is it OK to warn motorists? Photo Store

Picture it: An intoxicated man stumbles to his vehicle, gets behind the wheel and turns the key. Before driving off, he looks at his smartphone.

His bloodshot eyes widen as he scans his Twitter feed.

It's his lucky day. Someone has just posted a list of locations where police are out in full force that night, looking to crack down on drunk drivers.

And so off he goes, altering his route to bypass the area he's just read about. He is likely going to avoid arrest. Hopefully, he makes it to his next destination without injuring or killing some innocent motorist or pedestrian in his path.

Such is the reality of social media, where this type of warning is often readily available and quickly disseminated. Some who post it may have the best of intentions. Others may have a nefarious purpose.

Regardless, this has to stop. It is putting public safety at risk and only benefiting motorists we all want kept off the road.

The issue flared up last weekend. I spotted a tweet on Saturday night from a young Winnipeg woman, warning her approximately 500 followers about a specific police checkstop location she'd just driven past at Portage Avenue and Moray Street.

"Be smart," she added.

Some of her followers who spotted the warning re-tweeted it to their own followers. This meant potentially thousands of Winnipeggers read it in a matter of seconds.

It's the power of Twitter, which can be an important communication tool. But it can also be very dangerous when that power is abused.

I replied to the original poster with the following 140-character-restricted message: "Don't tweet Winnipeg police checkstop locations. Bad form. All it does it tell drunk drivers where to avoid."

Some of my own followers weighed in. Their replies ran the gamut from strongly supporting me to calling me naughty names for making an issue out of this.

Here are few of the more common arguments made by people who didn't think it was a big deal, along with my own two cents:

1. "It's just being done to remind people not to drink and drive."

Hey, I'm all for this, and I wish more folks would speak out about this issue. Rarely a week goes by that we're not hearing about another alcohol-related tragedy on the road. The court docket I've been following for the past 15 years is flooded with these cases. So I would love to see regular tweets or Facebook posts reminding drivers not to get behind the wheel while loaded. But that can be accomplished without posting a specific police-enforcement location.

2. "It's just being done so law-abiding folks can avoid the potential hassle of a police checkpoint."

I understand nobody wants to get caught up in a cop dragnet. But if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. And I'm willing to be inconvenienced for a few minutes by a cop asking me if I've had anything to drink if I know the greater good of catching drunk drivers is the result.

3. "Drunk drivers aren't likely going to see it anyway."

Oh really? We're all pretty much addicted to our smartphones these days, and that includes frequent visits to our favourite social-media sites. I'm not sure how anyone could believe some drunk drivers -- who are making conscious decisions to break the law -- wouldn't go searching for this type of information.

4. "What's the difference between posting this type of information and posting the locations of speed traps?"

Drunk driving and speeding are both illegal, although one is a Criminal Code offence and the other is a Highway Traffic Act offence. Both are potentially deadly. I'd probably be a hypocrite if I had an issue with warning people about one type of enforcement, but not the other. So don't do either. Let the people who are in the wrong get caught.

There were also some suggestions from people who agreed this conduct is wrong and police should look at charging them. I don't think that would fly in court, although I suppose one could make an argument that warning drunk drivers where to avoid is a form of aiding and abetting potential criminal behaviour.

I'm also not naive enough to think this is going to stop in the near future.

One reader cracked that he's surprised there's not already an app for this type of thing, so drunks could quickly glean this info without having to scan social-media feeds. That probably will happen. But that doesn't make it right. Nor does it make our roads safer.

www.twitter.com/mikeoncrime

Do you tweet warnings about checkstops? Will you stop now? Join the conversation in the comments below. 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2014 A5

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