GPS leads driver into harbor

I have written before (here and here) about my mystification with people who blindly depend upon and follow their GPS instructions even in situations where common sense would tell them to double check or have a plan B. This can lead them badly astray and even end in tragedies.

The latest example of a GPS-induced error is a driver who followed his GPS navigator right into the waters of an Alaskan harbor.

The problem is that while the GPS satellites can pinpoint your location with great accuracy, the directions it gives you depends on the level of detail and the accuracy of the maps that the system uses. For example, people coming to my home, if they follow the GPS directions, can end up going all over the place purely because there is a ‘no left turn’ sign at a crucial point. The town that I live in uses such restrictions to discourage people from using residential streets as short cuts for people just passing through, and this can bewilder those who are unfamiliar with the town.

Local residents, and people who use road maps, know how to easily get around this by turning around in a parking lot but GPS does not seem to do that kind of thing. So I make sure I send directions to people if I know they are coming.


  1. says

    Mythbusters did an episode on “the battle of the sexes” and had two groups of randomly selected men and women perform various tasks to see if one gender outperformed the other.

    They found something interesting when it came time to navigate with a map. The difference didn’t seem to be so much between the genders, but with the generations. The younger participants of both genders overall did much worse than the older participants who were much more comfortable navigating with maps.

    It wasn’t particularly scientific (nor was it something the mythbusters were specifically looking for) but it was an interesting observation.

  2. Richard Simons says

    It’s not unknown for trucks in Europe to attempt to follow GPS instructions down roads that are narrower than the vehicle, between high walls or banks. I read of one that blocked a lane in Cornwall for three days.

  3. Ray Moscow says

    I had a GPS once direct me to drive through a parking lot and off a vertical drop of about 4 metres (luckily there was a barrier in the way).

    OK, I was driving in Lithuania with a Garmin GPS programmed in Latvia, but this was only about 2 hours drive from where I rented it.

    Anyway, they aren’t infallible, and one should use a map when in doubt and always some common sense.

  4. Nepenthe says

    GPS Abject stupidity leads driver into harbor

    FTFY. Because if you keep driving forward when you can see water ahead, the error is, as they say, between chair and screen.

  5. gerryfromktown says

    Off course – abject stupidity.

    Still …

    Coming off a ferry in pitch black darkness, in a new location, and in pouring rain is highly disorientating. I have panicked behind the wheel in similar situations, and with other drivers tailgating you can do desperate things. Fortunately I have (so far) had the presence of mind to pull over rather than make a dumb decision. This driver obviously didn’t.

    Without the added lulz of the GPS aspect of the story, this would have never become international news.

  6. Anonymouse says

    I’m a woman in my mid-40s. When I was a teenager, a guy I dated taught me how to read a map. One of the most useful skills I’ve ever learned; I can get anywhere with an ADC map. Just this week I did a round-trip of more than a thousand miles with nothing more than the paper map, which I read before leaving and consulted at a couple of rest stops.

    I’ve taught my own child to read maps. Not only is it good practice, but it helps build the memory, too, and depending on the eyes instead of the computer.

  7. coragyps says

    Some brands of GPS, when programmed with the true address of where I work, lead unwary – or wary – truck drivers to a little (but paved, at least) road about four miles east of us. Nothing is there but cotton fields and power-generating windmills. So yeah, the map that the GPS uses is rather important, and not all GPSs use the same ones.

  8. F says

    People are still doing this? Do they not watch the road (or lack thereof)? Wait – no, don’t answer that question.

  9. stonyground says

    Before we got our satnav, my wife would navigate and I would drive. When driving alone for work, I would study the map beforehand and write a list of road and junction numbers and tape it to the dash. Satnavs generally make life much easier but of course they are not infallable. We had a problem in Leeds where some roads had been closed off for construction work. All we had to do was head in roughly the right direction and wait for the satnav to re-calculate the route.

    Anonymouse, your idea about teaching the kids to navigate is a good one which I think I will copy. As satnavs become ubiquitous, a generation will probably grow up with no map reading ability at all.

  10. says

    Good morning Mano,

    Years ago, when GPS first became popular, my hometown of Marietta, Ohio, had a problem.

    Truck drivers unfamiliar with the town would follow GPS directions to take a short cut through town that led them to the top of a steepish hill with a very hard left-turn — a turn too hard and too narrow to be completely negotiated by a tractor-trailer rig — resulting in the trucks being forced to back out of the blind curve and back down the steepish hill.

    I don’t know of any actual accidents or injuries resulting from the GPS miss-direction, but local police were not happy and more than one local was inconvenienced (or scared witless) by the clueless truck drivers.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  11. lordshipmayhem says

    We’re all saying it wrong. It’s not “GPS”, it’s “GOPS”. It’s why the Republicans think that the trickle-down theory of economics actually works.

  12. stonyground says

    I feel fairly certain that there are programmes for satnavs that are specifically designed for trucks. These take into account narrow roads, weight limits, low bridges etc. and direct trucks accordingly. Because of their smaller circulation these programmes are more expensive than the regular ones. It would, of course, take just one screw up involving a truck getting stuck for the trucks only version to have paid its way.

    A truck got stuck on a sharp bend not far from where I live. The sinage is very clear that the route in question is not suitable for big trucks.

  13. left0ver1under says

    One of the restrictions set by Mythbusters was absolutely ridiculous and doomed many to failure: the navigators were not allowed to plan out a route, they had to make it up as they went. I don’t know about others, but if I’m going somewhere I don’t know, I take ten minutes at a table to plan out a route, rather than try to match landmarks to the map while going 50km/h.

    I would bet that some of those who “failed” the Mythbusters test would have done better if they had taken the time to plan out a route. “Measure twice, cut once” as carpenters would say.

  14. left0ver1under says

    I too don’t understand the obsession with GPS systems. First, they don’t work if there’s no electricity or signal, or if the area isn’t mapped. Second, just because the computer gives a direction doesn’t mean it’s usable. And third, a lot of the time, the GPS route is not the most efficient route, if it isn’t wrong route altogether.

    It’s not just map reading that is easy to learn and useful (as others have mentioned) but orienteering as well. When I travel, I always carry a tiny compass (on my keychain or wristwatch) as well as a map. I also familiarize myself with major streets, which are NSEW. It really baffles me that most people don’t know how to find the cardinal directions, even without a compass. And trying to give or get accurate directions can be an exercise in futility. How can you ever figure out where to go if you don’t even know where you are?

    I tell people, “Go to Main Street, then turn north…” and most will ask if I mean left or right. Knowing whether to go left or right depends on which way you were coming from, but north is always north. And yet, most people can’t grasp the concept.

  15. Chiroptera says

    left0ver1under, #14:

    Heh. I was once invited to a party that was in a subdivision where all the streets were curvy and twisty. I was actually using the stars to make sure I was going in the right direction until I arrived at the right house.

  16. Leni says

    I was laughing til I read the part about the cat too :/

    I once saw a show about “what to do if there is a total civil breakdown” of some sort. One piece of advice that actually seemed really useful was to go to the library and get maps. Sewer/water/drainage systems, railroad lines, that sort of thing. Not really relevant to the topic but I always thought it was an interesting idea.

  17. maxdwolf says

    I LOVE ADC book maps! Developed this appreciation long before GPS came along. When I was a courier I found them invaluable. I still find it helps me to look at maps beforehand to get an idea of cross streets and general distances.

  18. maxdwolf says

    I don’t have a GPS system of my own. The ones I’ve seen have been pretty handy but really seem to ignite my inner Luddite. I am somewhat skeptical of the accuracy claims made for them. I had to use one supplied by the government for use in the US Census (2010) to confirm addresses. On certain days I would be standing at a certain spot getting a reading and the crosshairs purporting to show my position would actually drift, sometimes tens of feet, while I was standing still.

    Regarding the maps the readings overlay, I have found national parks to be the most buggy in my experience. This being true for both Google maps and the GPS systems. I’ve had people report the GPS showing them flying over valleys in the Shenandoahs rather than on the mountain road they were actually on. As recently as a year or two ago there was a private road that had to put a sign up saying that it was not the road to Whitehawk Canyon because Google Maps had a habit of sending people that way.

    Awww, poor kitty. 🙁

  19. Gracie's Dad says

    I’ve never used a GPS but I’ve driven with people who have them. A friend of mine is so gadget-mad that he uses it without bothering to learn anything about where he might be going beforehand. A classic case was when he had to drive from the Philadelphia area to Nyack, NY, which, for people who don’t know, is on the west bank of the Hudson just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge. To return to Pennsylvania, all he had to do was head west on 287, but his GPS took him across the Hudson, south into NYC and back across the Hudson on the George Washington Bridge! He knew so little of the basic geography of the area, he didn’t think that was in any way odd.

    When he had to go back to Nyack a few weeks later, I had set him right and he returned the Hudson-less way.


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