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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When GPS goes Bad

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson

I love GPS; my wife does not. She does not trust it and would rather use a paper map. And she's right. GPS is a great tool but never trust it 100%.

When we drove from NY to Winnipeg, Canada, last summer, the GPS led us to a bridge that no longer exists. We could see that there was once a bridge but it had been torn down and replaced by a new bridge perhaps a mile away. This was a case where we had to trust our eyes and overrule the GPS.

A similar event occurred to a man in Spain but with tragic result. Man Drowns After GPS Guides Him Into a Lake. "The driver was following the GPS directions when the car fell into the water, sinking in just a few minutes. Apparently, it was a very dark night in a bad rural road. The man was a foreigner who didn't know the area. When he saw the end of the road, it was too late. He didn't have time to stop the car."

The day before in Switzerland, a van became stuck on a "glorified goat trail" while following GPS instructions (pictured above). The van was air-lifted out.

A friend of ours said no one would believe that her GPS sent her on to dirt roads during a trip. We replied that we understood perfectly. The same happened to us last summer as we experience many dirt roads in the farm country of Wisconsin.  Many new GPS have a travel setting to exclude dirt roads from trip routes.

Another thing to keep in mind is that GPS positioning is not 100% accurate. We often find our GPS is about 100 yds off in predicting when to turn. Once I was on an access road adjacent to and parallelling a highway and the GPS thought I was on the highway and was not helping us in finding an on-ramp.
Bottom Line

Trust your eyes, not the GPS.

If you speed on strange roads at night or in fog you might not be able to brake or stop if the road suddenly curves or ends. I recall two such incidents. Once in the fog I was cruising down an empty road I'd never driven before when suddenly there was a barrier and the road ended without warning. (maybe I missed the warning?) Another time I drove nearly the entire North-South length of Idaho on a mountain highway. I thought the speed signs on curves were mostly for trucks and that I could safely do 10 mph higher than the suggested speed in my car. And I could, usually, except once. There was one very sharp curve that got my adrenaline pumping as I had to fight for control to keep my car within my lane and not drifting in to oncoming traffic. Lesson learned - don't speed on unfamiliar roads.


  1. I don't know why we feel a collective need to warn against trusting a GPS when the same caveats apply to a map. I think we hold GPS to a higher standard than the dead trees version.

    If a map showed a bridge that was there would we still drive over the cliff? No. Same with GPS.

    Maybe the difference is that folks that read maps will have more sense than the Great Unwashed that use GPS nav, and maybe that is so.

  2. I think there is more to this risk then simply not driving over a cliff because the GPS says you can. I was using a GPS to find IKEA in Sacramento one day. It kept leading me to "strange" parts of town. Places I would never have gone to using a map because with a map there is context. The thing is IKEA isn't in Sacramento it is in some suburb of Sacramento. The GPS was confused and god only knows where it was trying to tell me to go.