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Driver Care - Directions for Disaster

Using navigation systems with due caution

Global Positioning System navigation devices – “GPS” for short -- may well be one of the greatest automotive inventions since the internal combustion engine, but drivers be warned:  they’re not infallible and can even contribute to a collision if you don’t use them with care.

Take for instance these recent stories:

  • A driver trying to avoid a traffic jam near Santa Fe, New Mexico, dutifully followed his GPS’s directions that took him up a winding mountain road for a half hour.  He stopped short when the road ended at a guardrail and a 200-foot cliff. “It looked like a small version of the Grand Canyon,” he said.
  • A 70-year-oldTexasdriver says shortly after he got his GPS he narrowly avoided an accident when it directed him into on-coming traffic.  He says he now calls his GPS “Christine,” for the malevolent car in a Stephen King horror movie.  “She’s trying to kill me,” said.
  • A Pennsylvania driver fiddling with his brand-new GPS on a dark country road rear-ended a car at a stop light just over the crest of a hill.

It’s estimated that in theU.S.some 49 million vehicles are equipped with a GPS device of some kind, and it’s widely acknowledged that with proper use they contribute to roadway safety.  By providing advance notice of upcoming turns, they help drivers adjust their speed and position to avoid reckless last-second maneuvers, make it easier to navigate at night, and help reduce drivers’ stress in unfamiliar environments.

But, as the stories above illustrate, navigation systems can have their safety downsides as well. Here’s how to get the most out of them without driving into trouble.

Maintain Your Road Focus.  Sometimes, GPS systems can steer you wrong.  One reason is that their programmed maps may be out of date, and sometimes they just get goofy.  Don’t substitute the GPS computer’s judgment for your own, and don’t stare at the map display.  Keep your attention on the road and override directions that look like they’re out of left field. 

Enter Your Instructions Before You Start Driving.  One of the worst things you can do is to play with your GPS while you’re driving.  Fiddling with it is just as bad a distraction as talking on a cell phone or staring at the scenery.  If you have to change your destination or system settings, stop in a safe place to make your adjustments.

Don’t Block Your Line of Sight.  If you have a portable GPS unit, be careful not to mount it in a place that blocks your view.  In some states, likeCalifornia andMinnesota, it’s illegal to mount your unit on the windshield.  Be familiar with the laws where you live before mounting your device. 

Familiarize Yourself With Your Route Ahead of Time. If you’re traveling into a new area, it pays to check out your route before you start.  You can do this by looking at a map, checking through your system’s display of turns, or simulating your trip, if your unit offers that capability.

When Parked, Make Your GPS Invisible.  Portable GPS systems are among the hottest items for petty thieves.  When you’re parked, be sure you:  1) stow your device completely out of site, 2) remove the charging cable from your cigarette lighter, and 3) if you use a suction cup mount, wipe off any trace of the “O” ring left on your windshield.