Does GPS Endanger Travelers?

Can technology be programmed to indicate when it's becoming less reliable? A firm warning could be a good reminder when leaving zones of high-reliability base maps.


Until a few days ago, I thought GPS was a great resource for safety. I've been putting off buying one mainly because I like to see the big picture on a map, whether a road atlas or an Internet itinerary printout, and because each time I was ready, some glitch turned out to be a deal-breaker. But I'd feel differently if I were on the road a lot.

Of course GPS, like anything else, demands a certain amount of common sense, to avoid destinations with similar names 230 miles out of the way, for example. And a New Jersey community that tried to limit traffic by installing a gate found even more noise and fumes as GPS-guided truckers had to back up when they reached it. But roads can be poorly marked. Wouldn't it be reassuring to know that a technology originally developed for the military was there?

But GPS can go tragically wrong, especially in remote areas, as the tragic death and near-death of a Canadian couple in Nevada illustrated.

Police in Nevada said the Chretiens were likely led astray by their GPS.

Rex Turner, a GPS engineer based in Oklahoma, said there is no denying the benefits of the product when driving in an established city.

But he said the farther you get out of town, the less reliable the systems' maps become.

"Rural routes are worse, turn by turn data really breaks down out in the country," he said.

Turner said a GPS can't be 100 per cent reliable because it relies on information that is quickly changing.

"Roads are constantly being worked on, neighbourhoods are constantly being built and you're at the mercy of government maps that are quite often old," he said.

The Sacramento Bee has excellent technical information for safe driving in the West and other rural areas, including advantages and limits of stand-alone and smartphone technology. The paper map is definitely not obsolete; if you read it carefully it may also have more information on the nature and condition of roads than electronic devices generally do.

Underestimating the backcountry West's perils didn't start with Garmin or TomTom. It was an ambitious young entrepreneur. Lansford W. Hastings, who published a guidebook for travelers to California featuring a shorter route ("Hastings' Cutoff") that he claimed to have discovered, who set the stage for the horror of the Donner Party in 1846-1847. (After the Civil War, in the absence of online reviews of his last work, he emigrated and published a guidebook to Brazil for ex-Confederates scouting for new plantations.) A survivor's advice to a cousin still applies: "Don't take no cutoffs."

I'm sure the risks of GPS are covered in the fine print of license agreements and in instruction manuals. But the purpose of getting a GPS to not having to read a lot of fine print to get where you're going.

Can technology be programmed to indicate when it is becoming less reliable? A firm but non-distracting warning, like a yellow or red border around the map, could be a good reminder when leaving zones of high-reliability base maps.

Nearly all of us, in the wrong place at the wrong time, could make the kind of mistakes the Chretiens did. So we need all the backups we can get, including the undervalued work of state employees like base map makers. And paper -- along with inquiries of local people -- remains the information medium of last resort.

Images: Reuters/Rick Wilking.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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