In GPS we trust

October 13, 2010

gpsThe toll operator was talking like a preacher.

“Do you trust in the GPS?”

We blinked. Pardon? We just wanted directions.

“Do you trust in the GPS?”

Uh, hardly. We were stuck on some unfamiliar highway in Buffalo at night, trying to get home. And a woman in a slightly condescending British voice was barking commands out of the little black box on the dashboard, letting us know we must turn left in 500 metres, 400 metres, 300 metres, 200 metres …

This was all her fault. I had wanted to do things the old-fashioned way – buy a paper map and pretend you know what you’re looking at, then ask convenience store clerks who don’t speak English which way to go.

But no, this is the future, and the future will be plotted only by global positioning systems. The GPS lady and I have always enjoyed an uneasy relationship. Something about handing over the navigational decisions to a software program connected to a satellite orbiting Earth that doesn’t seem to know the difference between an expressway and a swamp road makes me nervous.

Do I trust in the GPS? Hell, no.

Sure, GPS systems help millions of people get to where they’re going. But they help us do some pretty dumb things, too.

Like the 25-year-old prison guard who trusted GPS to show her the way to a friend’s home in Belleville using unfamiliar back roads last week. It promptly directed her into Murray Marsh, a conservation area, where she sat on the roof of her partially submerged car while she waited to be rescued.

Then there was the 37-year-old man who died on a back road in Spain earlier this month after his GPS directed him down an unused roadway that led directly into a reservoir. The GPS said go this way, and down he went.

Or the Oregon couple who spent three days stranded in the mountains with their SUV last Christmas thanks to bad directions given by their GPS. Or the British woman who lost her $200,000 Mercedes because the GPS directed her into a river.

Are GPS systems the new great menace on the roads? They just may be. If only, Heavens to Betsy, there was a way to see where you car was going without them.

Auto manufacturers should be mandated by law to install navigation systems made of glass at the front of every vehicle they make. They could call these things “windshields,” and you could look through them to see where you’re going. I know, it’s a radical idea, but it could work.

And governments could do more to protect us from GPS, too, like installing roadside signs that say where you’re going, and maybe even how far away that place is. Also just an idea, and it should probably be tested first.

While we’re at it, maybe our schools ought to start teaching map reading right along with English, history and math classes.

I’m not sure this would make a whole lot of difference for some drivers, however. Some people would follow their GPS directions straight through a crowded schoolyard and off a cliff if it told them to go that way.

None of this mattered to the Buffalo toll operator. He was a devout believer in the GPS. So grudgingly, we trusted. And yes, the British lady in the box got us home. Even if she was a little upset when we made an unannounced stop for gas at the side of the road.

“Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating…,” she said.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

Guelph Mercury, 10/12/10

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