How NOT to Use Your GPS

GPS with Vehicle

The GPS said ‘turn left’.  What?  I was driving along the spectacular main highway from Arthurs Pass to Christchurch and the road signs were definitely saying that I needed to proceed straight ahead.  Decision time – do I follow the GPS directions or ignore them?  As a result of having previously looked at a larger scale map I decided to ignore the GPS and continue safely along the main highway.  The GPS attempted to get me to turn off onto some interesting looking gravel roads which I also ignored before it finally admitted defeat.

In modern day times most travellers utilise tools for navigation like GPS and satnav devices and smartphone applications.  The GPS device tells us where to turn and it is too easy to blindly follow the directions.  There are many reported cases where people have either gotten into serious trouble or have died as a result of not applying common sense when using their GPS.

How to Safely Use Your GPS or Satnav

Here are the situations where you need to reconsider whether to blindly follow your GPS directions.

Minor GPS Safety Issues

Turning onto Minor Roads

If you are travelling on a major road between major locations and your GPS advises you to turn off that route then you should consider whether to take that advice.

In my story above this case was actually the second time on our New Zealand trip that our GPS advised us to take a road which was off the major route.  The first time we followed the directions and while we did eventually get to our destination and we did enjoy driving on some back country roads we would have preferred to stay on the main route.

In this case the impact was just some extra time driving but as you will see below if you are driving in an unfamiliar location you should carefully check your route first.

Funky Routes

Most people will have experienced a GPS ‘magical mystery tour’ where the route advised by your GPS is not the most direct route.  Most places have an area of roads where the way the GPS map is set up does not properly reflect the actual road system and options.

I recently went for dinner at a colleague’s house and he warned me that my GPS would probably try to take me on a clover leaf path on the way to his house and I should just go direct instead.  Sure enough my GPS did exactly as he had advised.  He advised that the route fault seemed to be present in all of the major GPS map brands.

There is also a similar area close to my current home.  A major crossing road seems to be listed as a minor road in the GPS maps so the GPS recommends a frustrating longer route when traversing through this area.  In this case I am familiar with the area so will regularly ignore this issue and hope they will eventually fix it in the maps.

Too Narrow Road

There are also many reports of cars and trucks becoming trapped on too narrow roads with the drivers excuse being that the GPS directed them to take that route.

Insufficient Clearance

There are also many incidents where GPS devices have directly larger vehicles such as trucks and buses onto roads where there is insufficient overhead clearance or turning clearance for larger vehicles.  For example, there was a case in 2008 in the USA where a bus loaded with school children was driven into (and under) a bridge and the driver blamed the GPS.

In addition there are many places which do not have sufficient space for large vehicles to turn through tight corners.  As a result they can become stuck or have to attempt to turn around to avoid the tight corner.

Major GPS Safety Issues

Water Crossings

Where the GPS map faults get more serious is if you are attempting to cross a water course, whether it is a canal, river, lake or bay.  In some cases the GPS may believe there is a road or bridge connecting two places which are separated by water.

In 2012 three Japanese tourists in Australia who tried to drive to North Stradbroke Island by following the directions in their GPS.  Local residents are aware that the only way to get to North Stradbroke Island is via boat.

The naïve tourists set the GPS and blindly followed the route and only realised they were in trouble after they had driven approximately 500m onto the low tide mangrove mud flats before getting bogged.  The water level progressively rose so they called for help.  The water level subsequently rose to 2m which was over the roof of the car but fortunately by then they had abandoned their vehicle.

There are multiple other news reports of other tragedies where people have died as a result of following their GPS into rivers.  In most cases using some common sense and paying attention to local signage would have averted these accidents.

Remote Areas

In remote areas GPS gadgets can be even more deadly if they direct people onto a rarely travelled route or a route which is only suitable for 4WD vehicles.  In these cases the vehicle occupants are usually underprepared, so if they run out of fuel or have an accident they may not have extra water, food and shelter to enable them to stay alive until they are rescued.

Train Tracks

There are several cases where GPS gadgets have directed people onto train tracks. In most cases people have subsequently realised their danger and have closely avoided dying, but in others people have died.

One Way Streets

The GPS devices has also directed people to enter a one way street or highway on/off ramp in the wrong direction.  People have died or been seriously injured when they blindly followed these directions.

How To Use Your GPS Safely

So what are the best strategies to avoid getting into trouble with your GPS device?

1.    Drive During the Daytime in Unfamiliar Areas

A large number of GPS incidents have occurred at night when people have been travelling in unfamiliar areas.  At night you have lower awareness of your surroundings and may also be tired so it is harder to make good decisions.

Therefore plan your route so you will only drive during the day and break longer road trips into multiple days of travel.  Maintain flexibility so if you get are fatigued you can easily stop somewhere to stay for the night.

2.    Research Your Route in Advance

Many GPS incidents have occurred as a result of the vehicle occupants not having done any homework.  Most tourism websites have a ‘how to get here’ section so it is easy to find this information on the internet.

If you are travelling to a more remote area there may only be limited routes which can be used.

Therefore research your route online or in a hardcopy map and check that the road conditions will be suitable for your vehicle.  If you are heading for a remote area make sure you further prepare as detailed in 5 Top Tips to Prepare Your Car for a Big Road Trip.

3.    Keep Your Main Focus on the Road

Distraction from the road has been a cause of many GPS incidents.  Make sure if you are driving that you are watching the road and only periodically looking at the GPS as you travel.

Always do a ‘sanity check’ when the GPS provides you with directions.  Ensure the road signage aligns with the GPS directions.  Ensure that the GPS is taking you onto a proper road.  If in doubt stop in a safe location and check where you need to go before proceeding.

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Have you experienced, seen or come close to a bad situation as a result of your GPS?  Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

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4 Comments

  • Great advice, Anne, with some sensible and practical tips. The other comment I would make is that when driving round roundabouts it is necessary to understand how your device ‘counts’ or treats exits. In my experience, different devices treat them differently – very important if you are renting one. Similarly they seem to be treated differently in different countries. It’s therefore necessary to get yours sorted out or risk turning the roundabout into a merry go round!

  • The GPS system definitely needs some improvement! I’ve never heard about people driving into rivers because of GPS before.

    I’ve used the Maps app on the phone in Bali and surprised by how many minor roads are there. Sometimes those are the only way to reach the destination there, though.

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