The maker of the Snapchat app is eliminating a feature known as the "speed filter" that lets users capture how fast they are moving and share it with friends, NPR has learned.
The move is a dramatic reversal for Snap, Inc., which introduced the feature in 2013.
Since then, Snap has defended the feature in the face of warnings from safety advocates who have argued that it encourages reckless driving. The company has also faced lawsuits from the families of those who have been injured or killed in car crashes where drivers were moving at excessive speeds, allegedly to score bragging rights on the app.
Critics of the speed filter welcomed the news, while also questioning the delay.
"Lives will be saved. Crashes will be prevented, but the lawyer in me says, 'My God, why did it take so long?' " said Joel Feldman, the co-founder of the nonprofit End Distracted Driving, one of the groups that urged Snapchat to remove the speed filter.
What exactly led Snap to scrap the feature now is unclear. Over several weeks, NPR asked Snap a series of questions about why it had stood by the speed filter for so long. A company spokeswoman told NPR, "Nothing is more important than the safety of our Snapchat community."
A month later, the same spokeswoman confirmed the speed filter would soon be gone.
The feature "is barely used by Snapchatters," she said on Thursday. "And in light of that, we are removing it altogether."
She said the company started removing the feature this week, but it may be a couple weeks before it disappears from the app for all of its 500 million monthly active users.
Lawyer Michael Neff, who has represented the families of those involved in car crashes linked to the filter, said the change does not undo the pain of his clients.
"While this will no doubt serve the safety of the motoring public moving forward, it does not remedy Snapchat's choice to create and distribute the speed filter in the past," Neff said. "We look forward to our day in court and pursuing justice for those who suffered unnecessary losses."
'Speed filter' involved in several deadly car crashes
The feature has been connected to a number of deadly or near-fatal car crashes, often with teenagers behind the wheel.
A 2015 collision involving the speed filter left a driver in Georgia with permanent brain damage. That same year, the feature was tied to the death of three young women in a Philadelphia car accident. In 2016, five people in Florida died in a high-speed collision that reportedly involved the speed filter. In 2017, three young men in Wisconsin clocked a speed of 123 miles per hour on the feature before they crashed into a tree and died.
In response, Snap made a number of changes. It moved the speed feature from a "filter" to a "sticker" in Snapchat, lowering its prominence. It also added a "Don't Snap and drive" warning that would appear every time someone used the feature. The company also quietly capped the top speed for which a post could be shared for "driving speeds" at 35 mph. When NPR inquired about this in May, the Snap spokeswoman confirmed that the limitation had been imposed. Yet the company kept the filter available for use.
And the legal battles continue. Naveen Ramachandrappa, a California lawyer who sued Snap over the speed filter, wrote in a lawsuit that some teenage users of Snap believed they would be rewarded with digital prizes and trophies for recording a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour.
"Or at the very least, they want to find out if they will be so rewarded and so they drive at excessive speeds to see what will happen," he wrote.
A federal appeals court in May ruled that the family of the young men who died in the Wisconsin crash should be able to sue Snap for being negligent in designing a product that led to foreseeable harm. Snap this week asked the trial court to toss the case out, arguing the speed filter did not cause the car accident.
Of the some 5 billion "snaps" users make every day, the speed feature barely registers in terms of popularity, which is why Snap officials say it is dropping the tool.
Irina Raicu, the director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University, said that increasingly, tech companies are doing risk assessments of new products and features to try to get ahead of possible abuses.
"If you have a new tool or feature: What does it allow? What does it invite? And what does it incentivize? There are degrees of responsibility based on those three things," she said. "This Snapchat filter seems like maybe it was missing some of those conversations initially."
"Sometimes," Raicu added, "one of the most thoughtful ways to deploy a product is to never deploy it at all."
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect timeline for when a number of car crashes linked to the "speed filter" occurred. The crashes in Georgia and Philadelphia both took place in 2015, not 2016. The Florida crash took place the following year, in 2016.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The messaging app Snapchat has been linked to deadly car crashes. The reason is a feature called the speed filter, which tracks your speed as you drive. Snap, the company that makes the app, has faced lawsuits over the filter, and it now says it's dropping the feature. NPR technology reporter Bobby Allyn broke this news. Hi, Bobby.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey.
SHAPIRO: Tell us more about how this filter works and why people use it.
ALLYN: Yeah. So many know Snapchat as the app, of course, that lets you chat with your friends in these fun, disappearing messages. And Snapchat has features in the photo sharing area where you could, you know, put on an animated pair of sunglasses when you're taking a selfie or capture how fast you're driving using your smartphone's GPS. But here's the problem with that, Ari. Some people turned the speed filter into a game by challenging each other to try to go more than a hundred miles per hour. And in cases from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Florida, young drivers got into deadly car crashes while someone in the car was using this speed filter.
SHAPIRO: And now the company says it's dropping the feature completely. Do they say this is in response to the fatal crashes you're talking about?
ALLYN: Yeah. So the company made no reference to the crashes when it told me it's scrapping it. Instead, the company said, quote, "it's barely used by Snapchatters," suggesting there that, you know, it was dropped because it's unpopular. Snap has known about this problem, though, since, you know, at least 2015. And to discourage teens from using the filter to speed, Snap did make some changes. It posted a warning on the feature telling people not to snap and drive. And the company made it impossible to share a speed of over 35 miles per hour. It called that driving speed, and it made it, you know, impossible to share speeds with your friends over that limit. But now Snap says its feature will be gone for good. And Joel Feldman, who runs the End Distracted Driving nonprofit, says it's about time.
JOEL FELDMAN: Lives will be saved. Crashes will be prevented. The lawyer in me says, my God, why did it take them so long?
ALLYN: And, Ari, that's a good question. We don't know why it has taken so long. The company has never directly answered that. In their legal filings, Snapchat has said it fears a slippery slope, that if it removes one feature that's misused, where does it end? Might they start getting sued and pressured to drop other features that people misuse?
SHAPIRO: So you talk about these lawsuits. What happens to them now that the feature is gone?
ALLYN: Yeah. In recent years, at least 11 people have died in car crashes where the speed filter was suspected to have played a role. One of these cases involves the Wisconsin parents of two teen boys and a 20-year-old young man who all died in 2017 after their car lost control, and they crashed into a tree while one of them was using the speed filter. I talked to Mike Neff. He's a lawyer representing the family in this case, and he said Snap dropping the feature won't change the status of the lawsuits.
MIKE NEFF: All it does is eliminate an unnecessary risk for people on the roads today and tomorrow. What happened to the families whose lives have been forever changed is not mitigated or lessened because Snapchat made this choice.
ALLYN: Yeah. In response, Snapchat said the Wisconsin case is devastating and, quote, "nothing is more important than the safety of our Snapchat community."
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you.
ALLYN: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.