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Video: Don’t let a GPS navigator steer you wrong

By: · May 21, 2011

The reliability of portable navigation devices has again been called into question, with a recent tragedy involving a Canadian couple grabbing headlines. Termed “death by GPS,” wrong-turn accidents occasionally claim victims in dramatic ways, but the technology isn’t entirely to blame.

Portable navigation devices are travel aids. The technology has rapidly advanced, enabling the dashtop navigators to pinpoint your location, map a route to your destination, and literally talk you through the trip, turn by turn. Most times, the devices work remarkably well, with many newer systems providing choices for routing (fastest, shortest, toll-free, most fuel efficient) and informing its programming by local traffic conditions, both historical trends and current congestion. But they aren’t foolproof.

The GPS navigators depend on line-of-sight to an orbiting array of satellites that are used to triangulate the device’s location. Skyscrapers, mountains, deep valleys, and thick forest canopies can all interrupt essential signals, something we’re routinely reminded of as we test units in Manhattan. (Of course, some smart phones using server-based navigation can lose their way when cell service fades.)

Nearly all navigators use maps from two providers, with the distinctions between device brands and models existing more from the software laid atop the maps and user-generated map updates.

In busier suburban and urban areas, maps tend to be quite good. Frequently roads traveled are rich with traffic-flow information that can inform routes, plus having many users in an area increases the likelihood that road changes will be readily submitted. However, the currency of the maps in the device depend on when updates are made available and how often the user performs updates, if at all.

As you travel out into more remote areas, there is far less data available to update the maps, and likewise there are far fewer roads for the navigator to select from. The “fastest” or “shortest” route may also be the bumpiest, muddiest option available. The GPS is not going to know about recent road changes or seasonal challenges, especially in the relative wilderness. Some parks, including the aptly named Death Valley National Park, warn visitors not to count on the navigation system.

When traveling to unfamiliar areas, it is important to have a back-up system, and the best one is a simple “analog” paper map. Be familiar with where you are going and the main roads you will take: don’t just grab the device and go. There are too many opportunities for error, beginning with a typo when entering an address.

Should the device give you guidance that doesn’t make sense, pull over and evaluate your route. At minimum, you can zoom out on your GPS screen to see a wider area.

Ultimately, the driver commands the vehicle and is responsible for the safety of all within. A GPS device can be a valued co-pilot, but don’t let it steer you wrong.

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