“Death by GPS”

A few years ago my neighbors S&L invited some friends to come visit their desert place. The friends refused the necessary detailed driving instructions – “Just give us your coordinates, and our GPS will guide us in.” I remarked that this would not work; S said he’d told his friends the same, but that they’d insisted. They never did arrive, though I understand the worst they suffered was frustration.

Here’s a long article on the phenomenon of drivers actually following GPS instructions with the potential to kill them…

Most death-by-GPS incidents do not involve actual deaths—or even serious injuries. They are accidents or accidental journeys brought about by an uncritical acceptance of turn-by-turn commands: the Japanese tourists in Australia who drove their car into the ocean while attempting to reach North Stradbroke Island from the mainland; the man who drove his BMW down a narrow path in a village in Yorkshire, England, and nearly over a cliff; the woman in Bellevue, Washington, who drove her car into a lake that their GPS said was a road; the Swedish couple who asked GPS to guide them to the Mediterranean island of Capri, but instead arrived at the Italian industrial town of Carpi; the elderly woman in Belgium who tried to use GPS to guide her to her home, 90 miles away, but instead drove hundreds of miles to Zagreb, only realizing her mistake when she noticed the street signs were in Croatian.

It’s easy to laugh, but these stories also inevitably contain a heaping helping of “WTF?” All you’ve got to do is look out your window, dude. That’s an ocean. Why do people do this?

Funnily enough it seems academics have also asked that question, and they have access to grant funds. At this point the article turns rather tedious as it actually tries to explain why people do this. But several detailed studies all seem to boil down to the same nonsense answer:

“GPS eliminated much of the need to pay attention.”

Well, but…no, it didn’t. Did it?

Preppers and survivalists go on and on about ‘situational awareness,’ and I try not to preach because I’m truly the worst: I have walked into trees while watching my footing. But this is something more than that. People really do seem to have a capacity for turning all the decisions over to any agency that promises to do their thinking for them. Sometimes even a machine.

For their part, the victims often couch their experiences in language that attributes to GPS a peculiar sort of agency. GPS “told us we could drive down there,” one of the Japanese tourists explained. “It kept saying it would navigate us a road.” The BMW driver echoed these words, almost verbatim: “It kept insisting the path was a road.”

And that’s the great danger. Never turn your thinking over to somebody – or something – else. That way lies a cliff.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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8 Responses to “Death by GPS”

  1. Judy says:

    I take it you are not interested in driver-less cars. ;>)

  2. MamaLiberty says:

    I have no interest in a driverless car… but I’d seriously entertain the notion of a human driver to take me places. I drove 300-500 miles a DAY for over 14 years in So. Calif. traffic and long deserted roads in the deserts. I never did like to drive, and like it less each year now.

    Paper maps were my friend then, and I don’t want anything to do with GPS. It was very instructive to watch my niece dealing the the GPS in her new car a few years ago. We took the wrong off ramp and it was half an hour before we could find our destination. It may have been just my imagination, but the GPS “voice” sounded very, very annoyed…

  3. vorkosigan says:

    Always remember– the map is not the terrain.

  4. Titan Mk6B says:

    My grandson, who depends on GPS to get him everywhere, frequently gets lost. GPS is only a tool and not an end-all machine. If I want to figure out how to get somewhere I pull up Google Earth and chart my course on paper. Works EVERY time.

    When I was teaching my grandson to drive for one lesson I told him that my driving directions to him would be in compass directions not left or right turns. He had absolutely no clue what direction was what. One of the many reasons I was the one teaching him to drive instead of his parents.

    I do have a GPS unit and we do use it when traveling but mainly just to know what facilities there are around us. It is pretty handy for naming mountain peaks and sites nearby our route that we may not be aware of . Although one time when we were looking for gas it took us to three gas stations that did not have any gas for sale. I finally found some gas at a station that the GPS did not know about.

  5. MamaLiberty says:

    Don’t count too much on “google” maps either. 🙂 It shows two “roads” in my rural neighborhood that do not exist. One is my long crescent driveway. The other is totally a figment of someone’s imagination. Not even a driveway…

    People get lost here all the time using GPS, and google maps. 🙂

  6. Joat says:

    Paper maps can have phantom roads also. I was in the middle of Wisconsin and my paper map showed a nice straight road to where I needed to go, and it would have cut at least 20 miles off my drive if it was actually there.

  7. MamaLiberty says:

    Oh, bummer. 🙂 I only ran into that once when we were driving around San Diego many years ago. They had been doing a LOT of construction work downtown, and the maps available were seriously out of date. Lots of roads shown that no longer existed, and none of the new ones were shown at all. We were trying to find the airport to pick up a family member. Finally, got hold of her at the terminal and directed her to take a cab to our motel. And then we spent almost an hour trying to get back there ourselves.

To the stake with the heretic!