Lost GPS Drivers: Alarmed and dangerous

by Jon Kovash on April 5, 2011

GPS route-finding has been enthusiastically accepted by drivers who don’t want the drudgery of piloting their vehicles or the tedium of orientation and navigation. Begging the question of why they don’t just take mass transit, most of us have heard really great stories that involve use of a GPS route finder, flat unbelievable cluelessness and acutely stressful motoring experiences. One blogger suggests that, since GPS is most prevalent in high-end cars, a good Google search is “Mercedes” plus “River” plus “Crash.”

I chose to try “GPS” plus “Idiots” and immediately struck gold — there are friggin’ doctoral papers and commissioned studies on the subject, and I soon learned that the Brits had long coined the more genteel term “satnav mishaps.” It turns out that the Euros, with their ancient, narrow streets and lanes, have been longest-vexed by satellite-misled drivers. Lorries are crashing into fences, sideswiping ancient stone walls, mowing down trees and sinking into muddy farm roads. Signs at the edge of besieged feudal villages plead “No Satnav.” English railroads cite a surge in damage by GPS-led trucks striking low or narrow bridges, and insurance companies in the UK say hundreds of thousands of crashes have been caused by “over reliance” on GPS.

A 2006 study suggested that watching a route guidance display is more “disruptive” than trying to read a paper map at the wheel. Other studies have found that drivers straining to hear and understand robo-spoken audio commands are equally distracted. As a result, many of the planet’s 800 million vehicles are driven into buildings, into rivers, along train tracks, into oncoming cars, forging against one-way traffic and making illegal turns. That’s before they get lost:

• July 2008: A Syrian lorry driver leaving Turkey went 1,600 miles in the wrong direction, arriving at the Gibraltar Point Natural Nature Reserve in England instead of his intended destination, the Rock of  Gibraltar.

• A German motorist, when ordered to “turn right now” by his audio satnav, executed an immediate right turn into a building site, up a flight of stairs and into a portaloo.

• January 2008: “The Shropshire village of Donnington has suffered repeated invasions by 70-ton tanks and other armoured vehicles.” (A nearby military barracks has the same name.)

• June 2008 headline: “U.S. Tourist Stoned by Palestinian Mob After GPS Gives Incorrect Directions.”

• May 2006 headline: “Couple Arrested For Asking For Directions” (You  can’t win!)

It’s a complete reversal of the old saw, “you can’t get there from here.” Now we each follow our own personal Star of Bethlehem and, yes, theoretically there is an ideal route from anywhere to anywhere. Part of the problem is summed up by another old saw, “garbage in, garbage out.” The GPS routes are devised by companies like Tele Atlas and Navteq using intelligence that can quickly become outdated: businesses move, new roads are built, old ones closed for repairs, and frequently, with no dialogue between global user and local inhabitant, the data is deficient or just plain wrong.

In my own neck of the woods, the southeast Utah desert, our satnav mishaps tend to have their own unique character and usually involve caravans of rental SUVs full of vacationing tenderfoot flatlanders being swallowed up somewhere in the Grand Staircase.

ABC 4 News: A group of 20, including 10 children, left Bryce Canyon for Kanab at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in four shiny Renegades. They decided there is a short cut: “We have, like four GPS systems, and they all told us the same thing, that we were closer going ahead than backtracking.” After three hours and 75 miles on a remote and rugged dirt road, they cliffed out. Kane County Sheriffs said the group called 911, lucky to get a cell signal, “panicking to the point that they were really lost and no one was going to find them.”

Then there was the Pennsylvania couple stranded on Smoky Mountain Road for four days, and the family from Belgium on Four Mile Bench that was reduced to licking condensation off their mini-van’s windshield.

It takes me a while to wrap my head around the notion that visitors to the Utah outback would assume that each little dirt two-track is on some kind of systematic grid and eventually goes where they want to go, and their rented Cherokee will, like in the commercials, just sail over the peaks and canyons. But this obviously isn’t just a wilderness thing, case in point being the time I tried to drive the coastline of Los Angeles — an oriented person just knows that sometimes you really can’t get there from here. In surveys drivers say GPS makes them feel “more in control,” but they really want to just check out, and when they get the directions, most admit they are still confused. There has been much speculation as to why so many people seem geo-impaired.

Bats, cows, mole rats and all sorts of critters can sense the earth’s magnetic field, but apparently not Homo He Wrecked Us. Some psychologists believe that in fact many humans are extra-spatially twisted with an affliction they have named “Transient Directional Disorientation,” not a phrase easy to yell out at an intersection.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash lives in Moab, where he plays saxophone in a band called Phil Dirt.


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