A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has anyone gotten hurt or killed following bad GPS directions?

August 2, 2013

Dear Cecil:

Are there any figures for people seriously injured or even killed by bad GPS directions? I’m not talking about distracted drivers, but rather schlubs that followed GPS instructions off a cliff or something.

Cecil replies:

No figures, but we’ve got plenty of reports of GPS bum steers that sent users into harm’s way. You can look at that in one of two ways. The glass-half-empty version is that GPS navigation has turned us into a nation of lemmings, blindly allowing our faith in technology to override common sense. The half-full version is that each day miraculous technology combines signals from satellites 11,000 miles overhead with detailed knowledge of the globe’s 63 million miles of road to give countless travelers simultaneous turn-by-turn guidance in navigating busy, unfamiliar streets, often at high speed. And hardly any of them get killed!

You can guess which side I line up on. But judge for yourself based on the following data points, starting with personal encounters and working up:

  • “Let me tell you about a party I threw last year,” my assistant Una said. “My house is in the 9000 block, but Google Maps for some reason thinks it’s in the 10300 block. Despite my explicit warnings to my intelligent, motivated guests that online and GPS maps weren't to be trusted, more than half of them listened to the computer anyway and couldn’t find the place, in some cases driving right past it.” My comment to Una: Not saying you don’t throw a great party, but you sure we can blame this on GPS?
  • My assistant Dex reports that his GPS routinely advises him to make a 145-degree right turn off a four-lane overpass near his house and drive the wrong way down the one-way on-ramp.
  • Then there’s me. Lacking a decent map in pre-smartphone days, I was lulled by my rental-car GPS system’s success in steering me out of lower Manhattan into a state of sheeplike compliance as it led me to Philadelphia by way of fricking Wilmington, Delaware, an hour and a half out of the way. And let’s not forget that U-turn across four lanes on the West Side Highway during New York rush hour, which can’t possibly have been legal but was, I have to admit, a pretty good shortcut.

Now for the news reports:

  • A woman followed her GPS past a “Do Not Enter” sign and down the wrong way on a divided highway near Scranton, Pennsylvania, causing a head-on collision.
  • A Marlboro, New Jersey teenager, told to “turn left” by his GPS, made an illegal 90-degree left turn into the path of oncoming traffic, instead of the left-turn-via-270-degree-right-loop the road was designed for, and caused a four-car accident.
  • Several tourists get badly lost in Death Valley each year after being directed onto defunct or nonexistent roads by their GPS. In one incident a mother and son on a camping trip wound up stuck on an abandoned mining road for five days. The son didn’t survive.
  • A charter bus driver in Seattle who was relying on his GPS to route him under bridges with sufficient clearance slammed the 12-foot-high bus into a bridge with just nine feet of headroom, sending 22 passengers to the hospital.
  • Numerous motorists following bad GPS directions have driven their vehicles into bodies of water. Three Japanese tourists in Australia were persuaded by their GPS that they could drive to North Stradbroke Island at low tide (it’s actually accessible to cars only by ferry) and got stuck in the mud flats of Moreton Bay. They abandoned the car before the returning tide submerged it.
  • A Senegalese man driving through Spain wasn’t so lucky. He was following GPS directions at night when the road just ended, his passenger said later. He drove into a lake and drowned.
  • A 67-year-old Belgian woman traveling to Brussels — 38 miles from her home — trustingly followed incorrect GPS directions on a detour of more than 800 miles, arriving two days later in Zagreb, Croatia.

Were the drivers involved in these cases, to one degree or another, knuckleheads? Absolutely. (I include myself.) However, the world is full of knuckleheads, and if fixing mistaken directions can save them from themselves, it seems incumbent on the navigation companies to fix them.

I admit they try. The other day I beefed to Google that their transit directions from O’Hare airport to Chicago’s near north side had you changing trains at stations that weren’t free-transfer points, meaning you had to pay a double fare. Google said they’d get right on it. Apparently they did: now they’ve got you changing at a free-transfer point, but it’s the wrong one, taking you several stops out of the way. As a result the supposedly fastest transit route has you getting off the train and taking a neighborhood bus, which no one with a clue would actually do. But at least it’s not a cliff.

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Berger, Joseph. “Whom Do You Believe, G.P.S. or Your Own Eyes?” New York Times 17 February, 2008. Accessed 15 July, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/17colwe.html

Burton, Jeremy G. “Woman ticketed after GPS apparently leads to head-on crash” Scranton Times-Tribune 27 April, 2011. Accessed 10 July, 2013. http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/woman-ticketed-after-gps-apparently-leads-to-head-on-crash-1.1138188#axzz1KjHsTjaC

Clark, Krissy. “The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion” NPR.org 26 July, 2011. Accessed 10 July, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2011/07/26/137646147/the-gps-a-fatally-misleading-travel-companion

“Don’t follow the Sat Nav says sign” Metro.uk 18 February, 2007. Accessed 10 July, 2013. http://metro.co.uk/2007/02/18/dont-follow-the-sat-nav-says-sign-82808/

“Driver following GPS directions makes illegal left, causes 4-car crash in Manalapan” New Jersey Star-Ledger 17 May, 2010. Accessed 10 July, 2013. http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/05/driver_following_gps_direction.html

“Driver follows GPS into sand” 10 October, 2006. Accessed 9 July, 2013. http://www.news.com.au/weird-true-freaky/driver-follows-gps-into-sand/story-e6frflri-1111112337699

“Four out of five young drivers can't read a map as we become more reliant on satnavs” Daily Mail Online (UK) 21 January, 2013.Accessed 15 July, 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2265917/Most-people-longer-navigate-map-reliant-satnavs.html

Freak, Jeff and Holloway, Shannon “Taking the most direct route to Straddie” Brisbane Times 16 March, 2012. Accessed 11 July, 2013. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/travel/travel-news/taking-the-most-direct-route-to-straddie-20120315-1v85m.html

Haines, Lester “Satnav plunges £96k Merc into river” The Register 26 March, 2006. Accessed 12 July, 2013. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/26/subaquatic_merc/

Langston, Jennifer “GPS routed bus under bridge, company says” Seattle P-I 17 April, 2008. Accessed 11 July, 2013. http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/GPS-routed-bus-under-bridge-company-says-1270598.php

“Man Drowns After GPS Guides Him Into a Lake” Gizmondo News 10 April, 2012. Accessed 10 July, 2013. http://gizmodo.com/5655527/man-drowns-after-gps-guides-him-into-a-lake

Matyszczyk, Chris “Man allegedly follows GPS directions to wrong house; shot dead” Cnet news 29 January, 2013. Accessed 11 July, 2013. http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-57566488-71/man-allegedly-follows-gps-directions-to-wrong-house-shot-dead/

Sterling, Greg “Court Says No, You Can’t Sue Google For Bad Walking Directions” Search Engine Land 17 June, 2011. Accessed 15 July, 2013. http://searchengineland.com/court-dismisses-google-walking-directions-lawsuit-claims-82312

“Train Hits Car, and a G.P.S. Is Blamed” New York Times 30 September, 2008. Accessed 15 July, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/01/nyregion/01gps.html?_r=4&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

US Department of Transportation: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “Distracted Driving 2011” DOT HS 811 737 April, 2013.

Waterfield, Bruno. “GPS failure leaves Belgian woman in Zagreb two days later” Daily Mail UK 13 January, 2013. Accessed 16 July, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/belgium/9798779/GPS-failure-leaves-Belgian-woman-in-Zagreb-two-days-later.html

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