Do GPS Devices Lead People Off Cliffs? The dangers of just following orders

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Are there any figures for people seriously injured or even killed by bad GPS directions? I’m not talking about distracted drivers, but rather schlubs that followed GPS instructions off a cliff or something. —Jason, Sacramento

No figures, but we’ve got plenty of reports of GPS bum steers that sent users into harm’s way. You can look at that in one of two ways. The glass-half-empty version is that GPS navigation has turned us into a nation of lemmings, blindly allowing our faith in technology to override common sense. The half-full version is that each day miraculous technology combines signals from satellites with detailed knowledge of the globe’s 63 million miles of road to give countless travelers simultaneous turn-by-turn guidance, often at high speed. And hardly any of them get killed!

You can guess which side I line up on. But judge for yourself based on the following data points, starting with personal encounters:

  • “Let me tell you about a party I threw last year,” my assistant Una said. “My house is in the 9000 block, but Google Maps for some reason thinks it’s in the 10300 block.” Despite warnings, “more than half of them listened to the computer anyway and couldn’t find the place, in some cases driving right past it.”

  • My assistant Dex reports that his GPS routinely advises him to make a 145-degree right turn off a four-lane overpass near his house and drive the wrong way down the one-way on-ramp.

  • Then there’s me. Lacking a decent map in pre-smartphone days, I was lulled by my rental-car GPS system’s success in steering me out of lower Manhattan into a state of sheeplike compliance as it led me to Philadelphia by way of fricking Wilmington, Del., an hour and a half out of the way.

Now for the news reports:

  • A woman followed her GPS past a “Do Not Enter” sign and down the wrong way on a divided highway near Scranton, Pa., causing a head-on collision.

  • A Marlboro, N.J. teenager, told to “turn left” by his GPS, made an illegal 90-degree left turn into the path of oncoming traffic, instead of the left-turn-via-270-degree-right-loop the road was designed for, and caused a four-car accident.

  • Several tourists get badly lost in Death Valley each year after being directed onto defunct or nonexistent roads by their GPS. In one incident a mother and son on a camping trip wound up stuck on an abandoned mining road for five days. The son didn’t survive.

  • A charter bus driver in Seattle who was relying on his GPS to route him under bridges with sufficient clearance slammed the 12-foot-high bus into a bridge with just nine feet of headroom, sending 22 passengers to the hospital.

  • Three tourists in Australia were persuaded by their GPS that they could drive to North Stradbroke Island at low tide (accessible to cars only by ferry) and got stuck in the mud flats of Moreton Bay. They abandoned the car before the returning tide submerged it.

  • A Senegalese man driving through Spain was following GPS directions at night when the road just ended, his passenger said later. He drove into a lake and drowned.

  • A 67-year-old Belgian woman traveling to Brussels—38 miles from her home—trustingly followed incorrect GPS directions on a detour of more than 800 miles, arriving two days later in Zagreb, Croatia.

Were the drivers involved in these cases knuckleheads? Absolutely. (I include myself.) However, the world is full of knuckleheads, and if fixing mistaken directions can save them from themselves, it seems incumbent on the navigation companies to fix them.

They try. The other day I beefed to Google that their transit directions from O’Hare airport to Chicago’s near north side had you changing trains at stations that weren’t free-transfer points, meaning you had to pay a double fare. Google said they’d get right on it. Now they’ve got you changing at a free-transfer point, but it’s the wrong one, taking you several stops out of the way. As a result the supposedly fastest transit route has you getting off the train and taking a neighborhood bus, which no one with a clue would actually do. But at least it’s not a cliff.

Have something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.

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