Are Drivers Who Use GPS Devices at an Increased Risk for Accidents?

The Acura Navigation System. Image courtesy of

GPS technology has revolutionized the way that people navigate every vehicle. From airliners to ocean going ships, nearly everything that moves is directed by, or has its course recorded by, GPS. For the average driver, GPS is a wonderful tool. Gone are the days of a dozen paper maps stuffed into the door pocket of the family sedan. Now, with a couple of key strokes, a soothing voice will guide you on a customized route to your destination. However, as with any new technology, there are some risks involved.

One of the single biggest risks that comes with the use of GPS navigation technology is the distraction that it can cause for the driver. The average car is full of distractions that beg the driver to stop looking at the road. A cup of coffee, the radio/sound system and iPod that is feeding music to it, the kids in the back, and perhaps worst of all, the cell phone. Like all of these things, depending on how it is used, the GPS can be more harmful than helpful.

GPS Causing Distraction

Distracted driving is, in part, defined by the driver taking his eyes off of the road for 2 seconds. In those two seconds, your risk of an accident skyrockets. Consider how long it takes to initialize GPS navigation on your device? Can you set and verify a destination without looking at the box? Does the device give "expect next" or lane suggestion instructions out loud or do you have to look at the screen?

The windshield mounting systems that are available do a great deal to mitigate the risk of looking away from the road to check the GPS. However, don't think for a minute that having a six inch blind spot in the middle of the windshield is safe either. Until there is a look-through, heads-up display type technology, that allows the driver to get instructions in the primary field of view, without blocking the view of the road, there will be opportunity for risk exposure due to looking away from the road.

GPS Being Wrong

Let's assume for a minute that you have a great GPS that is installed in the car and is completely hands free. As you start out on your drive, you ask it for directions for the beach where you want to spend the weekend. It's a late fall day and, although clear, the air is cold. This isn't a sit in the sun kind of weekend. You start out down the path that your trusty navigation system sets out for you. As you meander toward the coast, the GPS directs you to smaller and smaller roads. Soon, the road turns to gravel. In another hour of following that soothing voice's instructions, you find yourself driving on a rutted dirt road, high in the coastal range mountains, with a light snow falling. You realize it's getting dark and you have no idea where you are.

As unlikely as this story sounds, a similar situation led to several deaths in Oregon some years ago when faulty GPS guidance led a family to the end of a logging road where they got stuck.

There is a real risk associated with GPS navigation when the user fails to verify the information coming from the box. Usually, this means that the driver continues into a construction area where he finds that the road is closed. Or, perhaps, as with the trucker who got stuck in Wedmore Village in England, it means that a giant truck is driven into an area where the roads neither support the weight of the vehicle, nor provide for a turn around.

GPS information is not infallible. Satellite information can be faulty as can map database details. Bringing a paper map and checking the whole route for continuity before starting a trip are both good ideas. Don't fall into the GPS-knows-best trap … which might literally guide you into a lake.

Proper Way of Using GPS

If you are going to use a GPS, consider the following:

  • Use pre-installed, voice activated GPS systems whenever possible.

  • Use suction cup mounts or dash mounts to put the GPS in the line of sight, being mindful to keep it from blocking your vision.

  • Use voice features and become familiar with the functionality of your device. If you have to look at your device, whether to program it or to get directions, you are risking a collision.

  • If your GPS needs to be adjusted manually, pull over or have a passenger help.

  • ALWAYS verify what your GPS tells you to do against what you see in front of you. Let common sense prevail.

Don't let the best navigation tool out there be your downfall. Reaching your destination is less satisfying if it comes after a collision. Drive safely with well managed technology.

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