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Rick Steelhammer: Leaving driving directions to GPS navigation systems? I'm recalculating

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Thirty years ago, the first car with a built-in GPS navigation system rolled off a Mazda assembly line, and in short order drivers began to lose track of their surroundings and abandon common sense as they obediently followed the commands of robotic voices with foreign accents down dicey-looking roads.

Sure, I exaggerate. The GPS has made it quicker and easier for highway travelers to get from Point A to Point B, and has eliminated the onerous task of folding and refolding highway maps. But the convenience has come at a cost, particularly for drivers whose brains have been conditioned to slip into neutral when highway navigation is relegated to an electronic device.

Countless non-lethal “GPS Fails” lists can be found online, with photos showing the consequences of drivers abandoning common sense and following defective navigation system instructions into rivers, or onto impassible back roads and non-existent streets that turn out to be fields or back yards.

Some of my favorite “Fails” include an incident in Colorado last year, when an accident on the main route to the Denver airport prompted travelers to follow GPS directions for a detour that included a section of dirt road. Recent heavy rains had turned the road into a muddy quagmire, but GPS devotees continued to follow the route until more than 100 vehicles became stuck, ending the shortcut’s brief life.

A few years earlier in Alaska, a GPS routing glitch indicated that a shortcut to the Fairbanks International Airport terminal was available by driving through a residential neighborhood. Those following directions for that route did end up at the airport, but along an active runway with no street available to cross it.

A gate, flashing lights and warning signs made it clear that the runway should not be crossed, but at least two drivers trusted their navigation systems more than the physical evidence in front of them and made the crossing anyway.

Closer to home, a tractor-trailer driver said to be following a GPS navigation system route apparently meant to connect him with W.Va. 94 at Hernshaw last month was stuck overnight near the end of Shooting Range Road at the entrance to Kanawha State Forest. In Charleston last June, a semi driver jackknifed his rig and blocked traffic while attempting to get on the South Side Bridge from Ferry Street.

According to a study cited in a Washington Post article that appeared last June, when drivers “are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them. They pay less attention to their surroundings. Scientists can now see that brain behaviour changes when people rely on turn-by-turn instructions.”

When the area of the brain responsible for navigation is used less, it tends to shrink, according to the study. Conversely, paying attention to the physical landscape that sustains and connects us, instead of relying on GPS algorithms to get through it, can foster a desire to love and protect familiar places. I doubt that ownership of a Garmin DriveSmart evokes a similar response.

Meanwhile, self-driving cars, which rely on GPS-based navigation systems, are poised to be the next vehicle of the future. I won’t be pre-ordering.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at,

304-348-5169 or follow

@rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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