Elevating safety through virtual connections

A team of University of Florida researchers has partnered with campus police to test a newly developed mobile application aimed at easing tensions and preventing misunderstandings during traffic stops between drivers and law enforcement.  

The free app, called Virtual Traffic Stop or VTS, allows officers to communicate with drivers through smartphone video before physically approaching a vehicle. The goal is to reduce any anxiety caused by the stop through the initial video interaction, making the interaction safer for all. 

“VTS empowers drivers and law enforcement to navigate traffic stops with ease and confidence by serving as an ice breaker that fosters an open dialogue between all involved,” said Juan E. Gilbert, Ph.D., a UF computer science professor. “There are so many different ways where VTS can provide an opportunity to de-escalate a stressful situation, making traffic stops safer for everyone.”

Gilbert, the Andrew Banks Preeminent Endowed Professor and chair of UF’s department of computer and information science and engineering, created the app with a team of students after a series of police shootings, starting with one in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The app is available for download on iOS and Android devices. 

To use Virtual Traffic Stop, users would create an account by entering their name, phone number, driver’s license, and the vehicles they drive prior to an interaction with law enforcement. If stopped by a law enforcement officer, the driver could initiate a session through the app before the officer approaches the vehicle. 

To protect the privacy of drivers, the application does not allow for officers to initiate a session. However, once a driver has launched an application, the officer can see and select the person who has opened a session nearby.

Also, the app makes it possible to bring a third party into the interaction — for instance, the parent of a minor or an advocate for someone in need of one.  

Gilbert has partnered with the University of Florida Police Department to conduct a pilot test of Virtual Traffic Stop with a small group of trained officers. UFPD begins testing the application today. The research team welcomes any agencies willing to participate in the pilot program. Additionally, Gilbert encourages drivers to download the app so they can participate as well. 

UFPD was selected to lead the pilot because its policing model is student and community oriented and its chief, Linda Stump-Kurnick, prioritizes transparency and communication with the public, Gilbert said. The agency was recently recognized by federal law enforcement for its implementation of progressive policing models. 

“Our priority at the University of Florida Police Department is to enhance the quality of life of our campus community by fostering a sense of security,” Stump-Kurnick said. “We understand that traffic stops can be stressful, which is why we are always searching for ways to ensure interactions with law enforcement end safely and, if possible, on a positive note.”

For additional information please visit: http://www.virtualtrafficstop.com/

UF News August 7, 2023