GPS Navigation Systems May Get You Killed

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In this information age, many of us rely on GPS navigation systems in our cars. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) such as Tom Toms, Garmans,  Magellans, Earthmates and smart phones can help us with “turn by turn” directions to our destinations. These systems are a great help, but they can also get us into situations that get us lost, or even killed.

How can these digital maps that look so good, lead us to make such foolish mistakes? Almost every week someone pulls into the dirt road that leads to my house thinking they’re on the road to some location a mile away. (The road has been closed for 20 years.) The road is marked “Private” and “No Exit,” but they don’t believe the signs. Sometimes they will try driving past the end of the road and straight into the brush, just because their GPS says the road is there.

Take a place like Death Valley, which got its name when a wagon train from the east tried to find a shorter route to California and got lost in 1849. Each summer in Death Valley, a quarter-million tourists in air-conditioned cars venture into 120-degree heat to take pictures and enjoy the desert. They come from all over the world, but many have the same traveling companion – a GPS navigation system to help them find the shortest and fastest routes.

In Death Valley, and many other areas, dozens of abandoned or closed dirt roads may lie between you and your destination, so things can get tricky. When you’ve finished exploring an area and then proceed to ask the GPS for the shortest route back home, the GPS will respond, “please proceed to the highlighted route”. In an area like Death Valley, GPS systems may be relying on old topographical maps and roads that have long been closed.

Your GPS navigation system will say something like, “You are in a area where no turn by turn information is available. Follow the route on a map.”  This is where it gets interesting. The GPS knows where you are, and you tell it where you want to go. So it gives you the shortest route.

Remember, in the desert, the standard GPS may not know where the open roads are, or even if there are any roads. If you follow its route, you may be taken off the road that you’re on, and be directed to follow a road that you can’t see. If you are in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you may even be able to do that for a while. Death Valley Ranger Charlie Callagan says some visitors who’ve relied on GPS have gotten seriously lost. It happens a couple times a year now, and more and more visitors have GPS devices.  If they are found, they say, “I was just doing what the GPS told me.”

When you come to a big drop off, do you continue, if the GPS tells you to go right over it?

desert from above

Here is how our GPS navigation systems depicted our route:

GPS screen

When we got to the wash, the road goes right over a small cliff. The GPS didn’t indicate any problem, but we stopped. Remember, believe what you see, not what a computer is telling you.

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