Misled by GPS, Careless Drivers Reveal Dangers of Over-Reliance on Technology

July 30, 2009 05:00 PM
by Jill Marcellus
A spate of traffic reports, derailed trains and befuddled vacationers warns that however authoritative the automated voice of a car’s GPS device may sound, it is no replacement for the voice of human reason.

Dangerous Directions: GPS Drives Accidents

The next sound a careless driver might hear after that familiar, automated “turn left,” is the wail of an ambulance siren.

A Swedish couple recently followed their car’s Global Positioning System (GPS) instructions to the northern Italian town of Carpi, not noticing that they were 400 miles off-course—and inland—of their intended destination, the isle of Capri in the Gulf of Naples, the BBC reported.

This seemingly minor tale of clueless, typo-disposed vacationers fits into a dangerous pattern of excessive trust in GPS devices to the exclusion of road signs and common sense. According to BusinessWeek, a survey conducted by the insurance company Direct Line concluded that over 290,000 British drivers, or 2 percent, have crashed or nearly crashed because their satellite navigation (sat nav) devices distracted them, led them off of the road or caused them to make illegal turns. Another 18 percent insisted that sat nav “reduced their awareness of what was going on around them,” a worrying statistic in light of a 2006 Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, which determined that “driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes.”

GPS devices seek out the shortest possible routes, often failing to take into account obstructions that should be obvious to any human. In separate incidents last year, two Metro-North trains collided with cars whose drivers had not questioned their GPS units’ instruction to “turn right” onto the train tracks of Westchester County, N.Y., according to The New York Times. 

Fortunately, the accidents caused no injuries, but they did lead to cancellations, hours of delays and costly damages. Satellite navigation systems have created a number of infrastructural and other problems, including damage to low bridges from trucks led down inappropriate roads, cars abandoning main roads and requiring rescue from perilous, cliff-edge paths, and sleepy towns overrun by a sudden surge in satellite-navigated traffic, according to the BBC.

Humans Take the Backseat to Technology

Some observers believe that these misled drivers view technology as a replacement for human responsibility, rather than as a tool to assist human reason.

One 20-year-old student, in recounting to the BBC a story similar to the Metro-North crashes, admitted that, “I put my complete trust in the sat nav and it led me right into the path of a speeding train” in Worcestershire, England.  

Brian Cathcart marvels in Intelligent Life Magazine over one truck driver’s 1,600-mile wrong turn, hypothesizing that, “With the sat-nav on board, [drivers] believed that they did not need to know about north or south, Spain or England, leafy Surrey or gridlocked Islington. That was the machine’s job.”

The “automation paradox,” described in the Washington Post by Shankar Vedantam, explains how such disaster may erupt from over-reliance on technology meant to minimize human error. Although mainly addressing automated systems such as cruise control, Vedantam cites a cruise ship accident in which the crewmembers were so trusting of their GPS that when the device accidentally disconnected, the crew did not notice and simply followed the emergency replacement route. Greg Jamieson of the University of Toronto told Vedantam, “The problem is when individuals start to overtrust or overrely or become complacent and put too much emphasis on the automation.”

Nevertheless, CNET’s Eric J. Sinrod writes that lawsuits holding GPS accountable for accidents may be down the road. Sinrod argues that because the devices are both “very distracting” and “quite commanding,” drivers might successfully shift their legal liability from humankind to machines or the companies that produce them.

Global Positioning System: History, Technology and Future

Although civilian GPS use has only become widespread this millennium, the United States military completed the system in 1995 and first launched a GPS satellite decades earlier, in 1978. According to Time magazine, the system “uses a ‘constellation’ of 24 satellites orbiting 12,000 miles high, each circling the globe every 12 hours,” in order to determine the position of earth-bound receivers. Originating in the Defense Department, GPS satellite signals were purposely “fuzzed” for security reasons by the American government until 2000.

The U.S. military, along with industries ranging from telecommunications to fishing, relies heavily on GPS. The U.S. Government Accountability Office warned this past spring, however, that the Global Positioning System could begin to experience blackouts in 2010 due to delays in maintenance. The potential for such disruptions has increased focus on rival satellite navigation systems from Russia, China, India and soon, the European Union.

For more about GPS technology and devices, see findingDulcinea’s GPS Web Guide.

Related Topic: Texting and Distracted Driving

Driver distraction has recently reclaimed the headlines in the wake of a study showing the dangers of cell phone texting while driving. According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study, The New York Times reported, texting drivers were 23 percent more likely to crash than non-texting drivers. Last year, California banned train personnel from texting while working after a train crash involving a texting conductor killed 25 people. 

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