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Dec. 17 Weekly Open Thread: Is GPS Taking the Fun out of Driving?

Fsg4_nowhereSubmitted for your edification and approval, this article from The Smithsonian Magazine:

If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t.

We've all heard or read of people who slavishly follow their GPS while it leads them into deserts, mountains, and even lakes, sometimes with fatal consequences. This isn't to suggest that people never got lost before GPS technology, but I do wonder whether many are not relying too heavily on the devices and letting common sense lapse.

I've yet to break down and get one for the car, relying instead on a trusty DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for most of my navigational needs 'round these parts. And, as I once opined, I'm quite comfortable heading down the road "with nothing but a star and an oil company map to steer by." That's not really a Luddite's lament; I'll happily use electronic maps when the need arises, but I don't travel often enough to unfamiliar areas to really need a specific device for navigation. OTOH, I will admit to being somewhat wary of the turn-by-turn GPS units, and e-maps in general: several times either one has been just plain wrong with the location of a road or it decided on routes so circuitous that I really wondered if it had any clue what it was doing. Mostly, I put this down to an over-exuberance on the part of designers to get maps out with something -- anything! -- on them, whereas the slower pace of paper-map making would, I think, tend to persuade mapmakers get something right before committing it to paper. Of course, it's also far easier to update an electronic map, so there's an advantage of the new devices right there.

Still, part of that article resonates with me: knowing the general area you are navigating through rather than just the narrow route your GPS takes you through, for example. I find it quite satisfying to get to where I'm going with a combination of maps, experience, and sometimes just with by-guess-and-by-gosh dumb luck. It also, I think, makes one less prone to panic when making a wrong turn here or there, though I suppose knowing/assuming your GPS will get you back on track probably also has that effect. But I also have sort of a longer-term fear that road designers might end up getting sloppy with their signage once they think everybody's GPSing it around.

So, what do you readers think? Do you use GPS to navigate? Often? Has it ever led you astray? And, as always, feel free to discuss anything else auto-related.

Credit: The Far Side image from this site which laments other GPS-related incidents.

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My experience with GPS has been less than stellar. Though I must admit the more recent versions are great for finding addresses around town from you car. My early experience with using a GPS device was with a very early one back in 2000. Following it through the woods had me going left, right, around and back to the left, etc. It was much better to use it as a plot line for general direction than a specific step by step route. Plotting a course with it was very accurate that way and it always got me back to my truck. Coming across the US to the west coast back in 2010 my latest GPS had me taking a Forest Service Road up over a mountain one time. I had told it to not use toll roads. Back to the paper maps and on line directions for me for long trips.

I probably should have mentioned that in a few cases, at least, the GPS has been a boon. Once, it showed us a series of forest service roads that allowed us to get to a fairly remote area without having to wend our way through a different series of forest service roads. That wasn't turn-by-turn though, it was just a map that showed our present location and such.

I also tend to think navigating is also something of a game at times. It's *fun* to find your way to a strange place without really *knowing* where you're going. Kind of a sense of accomplishment at the end that you don't get by just doing whatever a disembodied voice tells you to do.

OTOH, if anyone ever puts the HAL-9000 voice on a GPS, I am *so* there and to hell with the fun of navigating.

I flight trained in an older Cessna 172 that had an early GPS system in it. My instructor (WWII vet) made me demonstrate that I could use it, but also was adamant that I still keep track of my position at all times using an old-fashioned aerial chart and E6-B flight computer (slide rule!). He delighted in asking me at various points in our cross-country flights to show him *exactly* where we were on the chart.

The point is that he considered the GPS to be the *backup* system...

I did have to rely only on a GPS on a business trip to Germany last Spring, and it did get me lost once. Had to stop several places until I found someone who spoke English and could get me pointed in the right direction (I bought a paper map at that point, too).

I have GPS in one of my cars but I seldom use it because, like res said, it's usually as a backup. Nothing should ever substitute for common sense (although common sense seems to becoming a rarity more and more these days) - for example, if my GPS ever leads me to a lake, I'd like to think I have the common sense, to, I dunno... STOP... and realize that something is amiss instead of just blindly trying to plow through the lake (or building, or mountain, whatever...) in the hopes I may miraculously re-emerge on the other side somewhere unscathed - that only works when your the Road Runner in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

In my case, and likely that of many others the vast majority of trips are to places we are already familiar with, therefore why have a GPS? I agree with Yankee on the common sense factor. I have often considered having a bumper sticker printed in large letters, "Why is thinking an option?" Whenever my wife and I travel, our first stop is a travel guide outlet for a map of the area. That suits us well.

In short - no. Having it saves tons of frustration, and when I have the time & feel adventurous I can go it on my own. What I generally do is look up my destination (Google Maps generally) and familiarize myself with the route and optional routes. That way I have a comfort level with the GPS & know if/when I can choose alternatives for whatever reason (fun, avoid traffic etc.). I won't blindly rely upon a GPS though. That's asking for some wild misadventures if you don't update your maps frequently. And even then they can still be incomplete - especially in the rural areas I live in.

I do the same backpacking. I can triangulate with a map & compass. I used to teach it when I was a backpacking guide. But generally I'll prefer the GPS if I've done the homework & prepped so I have knowledge of the route & trails. The GPS comes in especially helpful when you are backpacking where there aren't trails & signs. Getting elevation & having the ability to compare that on the topo map gives you a fairly quick and accurate way to know where you are if you have a couple of sight references.

Personally, I blame the automatic transmission. Once no one had to think about shifting any more, and once the American automakers got to the point where they built 90% of their cars with only automatics, people started paying less attention to...well, anything else related to driving. And the GPS is the same sort of thing. Take shifting away, take thinking about the route away, and you've removed pretty much all situational awareness from the act of driving. It's not that GPS takes the FUN out of driving...it takes the THOUGHT out of driving.

GPS units for driving today are built by the same people who build the rest of our technology: West Coast urban dwellers who ultimately build for their own needs and thus assume those are everyone's needs. (Need proof? Take a look at pretty much all advertising for every location-based technology of the past 10 years. Recognize where EVERY SINGLE USE EXAMPLE is placed in the product? That's right: downtown San Francisco. Funny and true story...during the Apple Maps debacle, a Facebook friend said he couldn't see the problem with it, because it had no trouble getting him around in Silicon Valley.) The trouble is that because of this blind-spot in the development of the technology, the driving-type GPS units that people buy are designed only for traversing the main roads, and particularly in the main urban areas, and remote areas are given less scrutiny. They are great (usually) for getting you between towns, or to areas around town. One point not brought up is that nearly every one of them has a setting to prioritize highways. The highways are usually faster than any shortcut, and are a heck of a lot safer in nearly every case. Besides, if you're like me (or Chris Meirose), you'd probably NEVER take a driving GPS unit on a serious trip into a remote or backcountry area; you probably have a specialized one just for that purpose, as well as a backup paper map.

I like to use GPS (mostly the in-dash unit in the Odyssey, which is pretty good) if I'm going someplace where I'm not familiar with the flow of freeway interchanges and complicated surface streets. Also useful if I know where something is, but not neccessarily the easiest way to get in or out.

But I still have (and buy) lots of paper maps. I love to look at them; I like to use them. And often I find that the best way to learn your way around a new city is by foot or bike, with a paper map in hand.

A friend loaned me her GPS last year when I drove to Chicago which is a 700 plus mile drive from my home. As I had never been to Chicago before the GPS was a godsend for me. I would most likely still be lost somewhere in Canada.

GPSes for cars is not just a mental shortcut; it's dangerous. As mentioned, blindly following a turn-by-turn switches off your "situational awareness." (Great phrase, Chris M!) Because it does that, it also gets you very, very LOST when something goes awry.

Example: My parents were trying to drive to a major airport terminal. They were using a GPS system. Although there are huge signs over the Interstate pointing you to the AIRPORT, then a large sign saying TO TERMINALS, they insisted on following their GPS directions instead. It put them on side roads, service roads, back roads, under the Interstate, around the terminals, through gated access roads, and their GPS stopped them...at the Administration building. I guess they were lucky it didn't drop them in the middle of a runway. At no point did they question why they were on those roads, which would have appeared obviously wrong had they bothered to look around.

I never use GPS. I used to drive cross-country often, using AAA maps and common sense. I still enjoy recreational driving, but now I can pull up Google Maps before I leave, plan the route, learn the terrain, even pull up a USGS topo map and scout out the geography first. It's much more satisfying to know what it is you are driving through, than to have no further knowledge of the world than "turn right in 500 yards."

Sons of us are excellent , considerate, safe, conscientious drivers. But we have NO sense of DiRECTION. I think of the GPS as a God send. Saved me fuel driving endlessly looking for a freeway entrance, street, on the way somewhere I've been 5 times but have big quite remembered the way. God Send. Garmin for over 5 years and a believer.

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