Lost! with the GPS! — Safety Suggestions for Electronic Travel

gps systems in action (one in the back window not shown)

First safety rule: remember you're driving a car. Photo by mroach at flickr; CC license 2.0

Recent stories about holiday travelers blaming their misadventures on faulty GPS units inspire me to defend this handy device.  Modern people often exhibit a faith in electronics that’s totally unjustified, believing what’s on the screen over what’s visible through the window. This isn’t the fault of the GPS system. To be safe, users should lower their expectations. There’s no infallible wizard in the little box.

First Rule: Use Common Sense to Make Decisions. Neither map nor GPS unit will protect you from the consequences of driving onto an impassable back road during a blizzard.

I don’t use a GPS navigation system in the car and here’s why: I’m fascinated by electronics. The GPS just provides many more distractions from actually driving the car. I don’t even have a dashboard compass, because if I do I spend too much time looking at what direction I’m going and wondering if I need to adjust the settings to improve the accuracy. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can safely operate the car, the radio, the cell phone, the DVD player and the GPS system all at once. Every time you add an item to the attention queue, efficiency drops. Multi-tasking is a myth.

I’m reminded of something that happened to us a couple of summers ago while driving through our nearest small town here in Indiana. Up ahead, at the outskirts of the village, a pickup truck was approaching at a slow speed, and something about it struck me as odd. I mentioned that to Alice as we approached the truck, a moment before it gradually veered over the center line directly toward us. After a couple of seconds of grace period, trusting that the driver would recover, I took an alternate route through the front yard of a nearby house, blowing the horn just as the truck passed us, aimed directly for the nearest mailbox.


Clearly his GPS didn’t have enough resolution to warn him that he was about to smash into a nearby house, let alone warn him of the car we were driving.

Second Rule: If You’re Confused, Pull Over. Most of us need time to decipher the tiny map and the instructions. You can’t take that time away from your driving and still be safe.

The couple that recently became snowbound on a desolate Oregon road after following the shortcut suggested by their Garmin GPS also reminds me of several stories of Christmases past. Of course, mistakes like this aren’t limited to GPS users — anyone taking a shortcut in a serious storm is making a huge mistake. If the weather’s bad you need to stay on well traveled roads.

I recall a summer vacation my family took when I was about eight. One of the adventures my father had planned as we followed highways westward was a side trip through the Sand Hills of Nebraska. All of us were equally excited about the trip, which would take us through about a hundred miles of remote countryside. Arriving at the southern entry point, a small town whose name I don’t recall, the trip suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea. The town itself looked like it hadn’t progressed much since the 1880’s. It was a lot like the movie views of Deadwood, except without the trees and the people. We could see the road we were about to travel, a route marked clearly on our map as regularly maintained, as it snaked up the first of the crumbling brush-covered sand dune hills up ahead. It didn’t look like much of a road. When we got out of the car to reconnoiter, the ground under our feet was soft and shifty like the dunes at the beach. My mother and father stared into the distance at where the road led, and called for a family vote about continuing. After some lobbying by me, we voted to keep going. Wisely, my father said, I don’t think so, and overruled the vote. Family democracy took a serious hit but martial law saved us from being lost in the desert.

I’m sure that a GPS could have swung things in the other direction, and if we had had one along I’d have a real adventure to talk about here. If we had survived it, that is.

The truth about GPS maps, and actually any sort of map, is that they often turn out to be overly optimistic. Roads marked with the same symbols as roads you’ve traveled without problems may be impassable or not even there any more — as someone with a GPS found out a few years ago in Virginia, taking a turn suggested by the system only to discover that the road had been overtaken by a Corps of Engineers lake thirty years prior. Fortunately the driver was able to stop.

Reading the disclaimers manufacturers always include may help users acquire realistic expectations. Many companies point out that maps may not be correct and shortcut routes could even direct travelers the wrong way over one way streets. Not only that, the maps which come with new units are not the best maps available. That’s intentionally done in order to create after market sales of new and better maps. Some companies offer free updates and some don’t — many owners don’t bother to learn the update system.

Third Rule — Update the Software. Take advantage of any free services manufacturers provide. Buy better grades of maps if available.

Maps of any sort should never substitute for common sense. As a hiker and backpacker I’ve grown to love maps, and in winter they often substitute for the real countryside when the winter snows set in and my favorite form of travel is impractical. I’ve spent many wintry days hunched over topographic maps planning cross country routes I’ll travel next season.

Almost always, the real world turns out to be different. What’s steep on a topo map can be fatal if you try to travel it for real, and some of the most exciting trips I’ve taken have been planned in that way. They were reasonable on the map, but in real life I nearly died.

Sometimes it’s less serious but still inconvenient, as happened one summer in the Cascades when my journey for the weekend depended on a bridge that disappeared during the winter flood the year before. Even my alternate, a cable car for hikers marked clearly on the map, was unusable. The cable was still there, but the bottom of the hand cranked car had rotted out many years before. I suppose that technically it might still have been usable, but it didn’t seem wise to try. I wound up fording the river in spring’s cold snow melt, which was one of those equally bad ideas which doesn’t seem too terrible at first.

Fourth Rule: Always Take a Map and Compass. The old system isn’t perfect, but it helps a lot and the batteries never die. Most of us can use a map and compass at least in primitive but functional ways without any real instruction. GPS systems are not like that.

I recall when the GPS first hit the civilian market and what happened the first year it was widely available to hikers. The news temporarily filled with stories of hikers who had gone into the wilderness outfitted with the new electronic navigation systems, and while there had discovered they didn’t know how to work the GPS. Some also had cell phones and were able to call for help; some didn’t, and were discovered in more traditional ways.

GPS units are incredibly complex, filled with features most of us don’t use and will never really need. For example, some will allow the calculation of the acreage within the perimeter of the route you walk, if you complete a loop. For a surveyor that’s handy. For a hiker it’s kind of pointless. You can easily get lost inside the GPS by trying to do something fancy without the instruction manual. Unless you’re an expert and use the thing constantly, stick to simple things. I’ve had a Garmin for years and I still have problems setting waypoints. Tell me it’s easy and I’m likely to take a swing at you. I don’t use it often enough to remember it. Several times I’ve lost tracks recorded on the GPS by pushing the wrong button. If that had been my only way to find Home, I’d have been very late.

GPS is great stuff, and I like it. But I doubt that I’ll ever depend upon it. GPS has lied to me too many times for me to trust it completely. On a run last year, for example, I was interested in recording elevations on my usual route. My intention was to create a map which included elevation gained and lost along the way. For some reason — a lag in calculations maybe — the GPS kept me telling me I was going downhill, long after I’d started the uphill climb. Would I trust it in the mountains, in the dark, in the snow? In zero visibility I might have no other option, but I’d give the little brain a long time to think.

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