Why Do We Blindly Follow Our GPS?

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Most people would agree that technology has made modern life more convenient and comfortable. What we can accomplish with today’s technology would astound anyone living just twenty years ago. Consider Global Positioning Systems, better known by the acronym GPS. With the aid of satellite navigation, we can type in any address, and, in theory, our GPS will guide us to that exact location. But is reliance on GPS technology necessarily a good thing? Are we so dependent on it that we have forgotten how to use our common sense as well?

Around the world, there is ample evidence that GPS navigation is not foolproof. Consider the following examples:

In 2012, three Japanese tourists in Australia drove into the Pacific Ocean after their GPS told them to. The students were trying to reach North Stradbroke Island but the GPS forgot to mention the 9 miles of water between it and the mainland. The road turned to gravel, then mud, and then dead ended in the water. After their car got stuck, they had to abandon it and catch a ride with a tow truck. How exactly did they not see the water in front of them?

A group of Belgian tourists set out for a skiing vacation in the French Alps at a resort called La Plagne. Apparently, the driver picked the wrong La Plagne because the bus ended up in southern France instead. You would think they would have realized their mistake since there was no snow and no mountains. In his defense, the driver claimed his GPS had three towns with the same name on it.

Robert Zeigler found himself stranded near the top of a mountain near Bergun, Switzerland. He claimed that his GPS sent him up a goat track by mistake. The path became so steep and narrow that Zeigler’s van was not able to go forward or backward. He called emergency services, and a rescue helicopter had to carry the van to safety.

Robert Zeigler's van is airlifted to safety after her relied on his GPS unit which guided him up a goat trail.

Robert Zeigler’s van is airlifted to safety after her relied on his GPS unit which guided him up a goat trail. Source: Central European News.

Outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Norman Sussman nearly drove off a cliff after his GPS gave him an alternative route to avoid heavy traffic on the way home. His GPS sent him up a winding mountain road which ended at a guardrail and a 200-foot cliff.

Blindly following directions from a GPS could even have fatal consequences. In 2011, a Canadian couple got lost in the Nevada wilderness after following their GPS to a dead end. Rita Chretian stayed with their vehicle while her husband Albert went for help. Rita was found alive after seven-and-a-half weeks but her husband did not survive.

In a similar situation, a mother and son went on a camping trip in California’s Death Valley. They ended up stuck for five days on an abandoned mining road. The mother barely survived while her son did not. Across the country in Chicago, a woman was killed after her husband drove off a partly demolished bridge following the instructions of their GPS. This happened even after the bridge had been marked by concrete barricades, orange barrels and cones, and signs that said, “Road Closed.”

So what makes people throw out all common sense and blindly follow their GPS even if it means putting themselves in danger? Part of the problem might be our modern tendency to put too much stock in technology. It is all too easy to whip out our GPS and let it do the thinking for us. The other part of the problem might be in the GPS technology itself.

Developed in the 1970s by the Department of Defense, GPS technology was initially intended to improve precision weaponry. When the US government ended selective availability in 2000, the market for commercial GPS use expanded rapidlytgeo.  Today’s GPS users can pinpoint their specific location from government satellites that orbit the Earth. The information these devices use to put together a route and directions, however, might not be as accurate as you might think.

Map data companies rely on employees in the field to record street names, lane counts, and speed limits. But they also rely on other sources such as public records and local transportation departments. This information can become outdated rather quickly. Roads open and close, businesses shut down and others move in, and traffic patterns change constantly. Map data companies, who supply their databases to GPS makers, are continually trying to keep their information up-to-date.

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Unfortunately, these inaccuracies can cause problems. There has been an increase in the number of cases where drivers who blindly follow their GPS are getting lost, running into dead ends, and even swerving into oncoming traffic. This is becoming such a major issue that transportation officials believe errant GPS users are posing safety problems. Officials even have a new moniker for instances where cases turn out to be fatal – Death by GPS.

Moreover, it is not only drivers who are frustrated with the problems caused by blindly following a GPS. Stone Mountain Vineyards in Dyke, Virginia got so many complaints by visitors who were led astray by their navigation devices that they had to put a warning on their website. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, Raymond and Marie Hulsey actually filed a lawsuit, claiming that their driveway had been incorrectly labeled by MapQuest’s mapping software. For years, cars and trucks mistook their home for the county court because map data companies labeled their driveway as “Government Plaza,” the actual name of a road seven miles away where the county court is situated.

The good news is that GPS manufacturers and map data firms are trying their best to stay on top of changes and fixing mistakes. The map data company Tele Atlas says that it makes about three millions changes to their maps each month, and more companies like TomTom are getting help from customers who can register mapping errors on the Internet. A big part of their industry is keeping their maps up-to-date.

The problem will not be solved by mapping companies alone. Drivers still need to realize that a GPS will not do the driving for them. Putting too much faith in technology can lead to trouble, especially in remote areas. Navigational devices cannot distinguish between well-established highways and dirt paths. Consequently, drivers should always consult a traditional map and be aware of what’s on the road ahead of them. A GPS is not dummy-proof.

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References:

“Belgian Tourists’ Trip to French Alps Delayed; Bus GPS to Blame.” http://www.npr.org/2015/03/10/392014840/belgian-tourists-trip-to-french-alps-delayed-bus-gps-to-blame

“Death by GPS: Warnings about the Devices.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/death-by-gps-warnings-about-the-devices/

“Don’t Look Down: White Van and Driver Airlifted to Safety after Satnav Error Send Him to Top of Mountain.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1315762/White-van-man-airlifted-safety-satnav-sends-mountain.html

“Driver Follows GPS off Demolished Bridge, Killing Wife, Police Say.” http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB120578983252543135

GPS Tracking Disaster: Japanese Tourists Drive Straight into the Pacific.” http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/gps-tracking-disaster-japanese-tourists-drive-straight-into-the-pacific/

“Steered Wrong: Drivers Trust GPS Even to a Fault” http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB120578983252543135

“The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion.” http://www.npr.org/2011/07/26/137646147/the-gps-a-fatally-misleading-travel-companion