Bad Navigation

NPR has a really interesting story about the pitfalls of using GPS devices for driving directions. I've always been skeptical of them, and never owned one (though I do have Google Maps on my phone). I certainly understand the value they theoretically provide, but they've completely changed the way a lot of people drive, and it's not necessarily for the better.

(from Jobriga on Flickr)

The first time I experienced GPS was in 2008, while I was living in Dallas. A friend of mine had one, and since I bummed a lot of rides with him, I got a chance to see if it lived up to the hype. 2 out of the first 3 times we tried to use the GPS, it failed to get us to where we needed to go. After that, the GPS stayed in the glove box; we didn't need it to get around the city.

There's a scene in The Office where Michael Scott drives a car into a lake because the GPS gives him bad directions. It's an exaggerated case of someone who's completely reliant on a technological navigation system, but it's not completely unrealistic. I recently heard of two friends, en route to DC, who wound up driving on a two-lane road up and down through the Appalachian Mountains, because the GPS device in the car told them to exit the interstate and take the more "direct" route.

There's really a big difference between using GPS as a backup, in case you get lost, versus using it as your primary navigation, doing anything and everything it tells you to do.

GPS devices don't just give occasional bad directions, they're also distracting. A person staring at a GPS screen or typing in an address is just as guilty of being distracted at a motorist texting, emailing or tweeting on a cell phone. Megabus blamed a crash that killed four people on a driver who was distracted by a GPS.

In my teenage years, I did as much driving as any suburban teen needs to do, but I never had a GPS. It wasn't long ago that you asked for directions when you were going out, and trusted that the person giving you directions had a strong grasp on the area. These days, I sometimes ask people if they need directions to something, they'll say, "no, I have a GPS."


    On July 26, 2011 Paul said...

    In my experience, the GPS is useful for general navigation, or for finding specifics like a gas station or restaurant in a town you're visiting. I think it's important to know when to override it -- like if it advises you to take a path through the middle of nowhere to shave some time, you should at least check the route to see if that's necessary.

    On July 27, 2011 IMGoph said...

    GPS units are terrible. people who rely on them lose inherent geographic understanding of place. geography and wayfinding are about context, and GPS is about being at a point, connecting to another point, generally sans context.

    we have hundreds of thousands of years worth of evolutionary understanding of wayfinding that we toss out the window when we use these things. i'll never own one. you're making yourself stupid if you do.

    On July 28, 2011 Anonymous said...

    I'm a recent convert to GPS. Used to use paper maps, but hard to drive, read map and look for street signs, etc. I'm less distracted with GPS, espeically with the voice command option on.

    I print out a paper map, before the trip to compare with GPS directions, but GPS is the way to go

    On July 30, 2011 Anonymous said...

    I couldn't agree more with IMGoph.

    More often than not, I see people following GPS devices who are distracted drivers. With places like the District or Manhattan, the street grid is fairly obvious (except in the lower Village or some of the dead end areas adjacent to Rock Creek Park). However, for places like Northern Virginia, where the road systems make little coherent sense, I will see drivers starting and stopping at every intersection, causing frustration for those (who know where they are going) behind them.

    More important is the lost sense of "place" and "context" (as if many of these newer developments had either).

    On July 31, 2011 Ted said...

    Most GPS units require you to make a choice when setting them up - to take the "fastest route" or the "shortest route". In many cases, the fastest route is not the shortest, and your choice may account for "strange" directions. Because I find myself traveling in many unfamiliar places, I find my GPS to be an invaluable tool, and would not like to have to go back to traditional maps.