Why Aren't GPS Navigation Systems More Reliable?

We've been down this road before: A trusting soul gets bum directions from a GPS navigation system, winds up in the middle of nowhere, and may or may not survive the ordeal.

Photograph: Marc Simon
The latest incident took place a few days ago in the Eastern Oregon desert, when a Nevada couple let their Toyota Sequoia's not-so-trusty GPS system find the shortest route to their destination. According to the USA Today, John Rhoads and his wife, Starry Bush-Rhoads, got stuck in snow for three days when their GPS unit led them down an isolated forest road.

Ironically, the couple's GPS-equipped cell phone saved them on Sunday by relaying its coordinates to a dispatcher. "GPS almost did 'em in and GPS saved 'em," Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger told the USA Today. "It will give you options to pick the shortest route. You certainly get the shortest route. But it may not be a safe route."

Luckily, GPS systems have never placed me in a life-or-death situation. They have, however, provided me with miserable and misleading directions from time to time. So what's a driver to do? The best advice, of course, is to carry a backup (yes, a printed) map, but that's not always practical, particularly if you're on a long road trip with multiple destinations.

When shopping for a GPS device, look for one that provides frequent map updates. While that may save you from taking the wrong Interstate exit, or driving the wrong way down a one-way road, it might not prevent the kind of wilderness snafus that befell the Rhoads in Oregon.

Common sense is always your best guide. If your GPS is guiding you down a lonely road in the mountains, it may be time to revise your route.

We asked leading GPS device vendors Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom to comment for this article, but they didn't respond by post time.

For more tips, read PC World's "How to Buy a GPS Device."

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