Feb. 4, 2011 at 5:29 PM ET
You know those stories we secretly like to chuckle over, about people driving into yards or fountains or even buildings because their GPS told them to? Well, the stories are getting less and less funny; some even result in fatalities.
In August, 2009, in Death Valley National Park in California, an 11-year-old boy died of dehydration and exposure after the GPS navigator his mother was following stranded them on a rough country road.
In a new follow-up report in the Sacramento Bee, reporter Tom Knudson interviewed rangers and wilderness guides who remembered the incident, and who frequently deal with stranded tourists.
"People are renting vehicles with GPS and they have no idea how it works and they are willing to trust the GPS to lead them into the middle of nowhere," Death Valley wilderness coordinator Charlie Callagan told the Bee. "It's what I'm beginning to call death by GPS," said Callagan.
But how widespread is this problem really? And what can drivers do to prevent being guided down the wrong path?
The boy who died in Death Valley was one of 12 known fatalities over a 15-year period at the national park, most presumably not having GPS to blame. And while there are plenty of laughable anecdotes — a recent story tells of an elderly British couple who, when touring Germany, plowed into the side of a village church because of flawed instructions from their GPS — the fatalities are few and far between. But that doesn't mean it's not a problem, and something every user needs to be aware of, especially now that more and more navigation is done using smart phones.
It's easy to dismiss these people who seem to follow their dashboard helpers with mindless devotion; many of us have had a mis-turn or two thanks to satellite navigation.
Once, in the Willamette Valley wine country, a friend and I turned onto a dirt road and kept driving until we saw a sign telling us to turn back. "Sorry your GPS brought you here," it read, followed by instructions that had no doubt been followed by many a wandering oenophile. But as easy as it was to get lost following the GPS, we weren't in a life-threatening environment. Even if we got stuck, the worst thing that could happen would have been having to knock on a farmhouse door. Getting lost is sometimes even part of the fun.
But when extreme temperatures, hazardous weather or treacherous roads are part of the trip, you need to understand the what your GPS device can — and can't — do. Portable navigators have different weaknesses than phone apps, and even among the phone apps, there are significant differences.
Mind your GPS
Portable GPS navigators, the dashboard-suctioned Garmins and TomToms so many Americans have bought in the past several years, usually come with a complete map of the U.S. or North America, premium units can receive traffic data and alerts, or even connect to the Internet for up-to-date information, but most of them are stuck with only the maps stored inside. This means they can't tell you if a road was closed since you bought the device, and they can't tell you of any hazard advisories put out by the local authorities.
Navigation apps on smart phones are all the rage now, and with good reason: They do everything that the portable navigators have been known to do, and more, and they cost a lot less. But not all apps are crafted the same. Some, such as the apps from TomTom and Navigon, come with a complete map download, so that the phone has everything on board. Other apps, such as the iPhone's budget best-seller MotionX GPS-Drive and Garmin's new StreetPilot, download maps needed for each particular route, using the phone's cellular connection.
The benefits to these approaches vary. If your app includes all the maps, it will be able to re-route you and function fully without any cell service. If your app downloads maps on the go, you may be stuck. "If you don't have cell phone signal and you leave the route, you can't navigate," says Johan-Till Broer, a spokesman for Navigon.
The downside to onboard maps is that they might get stale. Navigon recently updated maps for all owners of the app, but they can't do it too often because it costs them money. Apps that download maps as needed tend to have fresher maps.
Broer warns against free apps, because he says their map data may not be sourced from a reputable map data provider. Sticking with brand names you know — Garmin, TomTom, Navigon — or with apps that get high user ratings in the iPhone and Android app stores should help steer you from a bad experience.
No matter what kind of GPS you have, relying solely on it is a bad bet.
"The map's never going to be perfect, unless there's a way of tracking everything in real time," says Broer. "Roads and streets change on a daily basis."
According to the Sacramento Bee, experts recommend keeping traditional navigational tools handy such as a paper map and compass, not to mention plenty of water. "And for those venturing off-road," says the report, "[experts] strongly advise carrying personal locator beacons or similar devices that send a signal via satellite, advising others of your location and notifying authorities if you need help." (There are more good tips for travelers in the Bee's piece; I encourage you to read it.)
Most of all, though, it's important to use common sense.
"There was a report not long ago about a guy who drove into a lake," said Navigon's Broer. "You have to look out the window and see that there's a lake. GPS is an assistant that can help you while you're driving, but you shouldn't blindly follow the machine."
More stories on GPS and driver safety from msnbc.com: