Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Eyes on the Road when using GPS

By Eliza Ramsey

This past weekend I was in the University District at a graduation party and then planning to visit friends in Redmond. For me, the most logical, direct route would be to cross Lake Washington on State Route 520 and head north on Interstate 405, yet when I plugged my destination into Apple Maps on my iPhone it would not send me across the floating bridge. Luckily, my phone knew all eastbound SR 520 lanes were closed over the weekend, but this is not always the case.

Google Maps, TomTom, Garmin and others GPS companies don’t necessarily update their services for every construction closure, even the long term ones. The GPS-guided directions can simplify the task of getting from Point A to Point B, but blindly trusting these programs can ensnare you in the kind of traffic headaches you set out to avoid, and even endanger your safety.

Out of date GPS information is especially problematic in devices that require a subscription for updates. It’s important to recognize when the information you are getting may be imperfect. When you are out driving around, pay attention to road signs that warn of closures and suggest alternate routes, and whatever you do don’t drive around barricades or through traffic barrels. There’s a reason they are there.

Blindly following GPS directions isn’t a new problem. In 2008 a charter-bus driver following their GPS crashed into a bridge in Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum. The driver didn’t see the flashing lights or signs indicating a low bridge down the road. In 2011, three visitors to the Seattle area followed their vehicle’s GPS and ended up in Bellevue’s Mercer Slough. More recently, on SR 3 near Shelton, crews had closed the road to replace a damaged 1930s-era culvert. Despite closure signs and barricades, several drivers per hour followed their GPS directions and drove into the closed area. Luckily our crews were able to stop them and turn them around, but if they had kept going they could have ended up in a dangerous situation for them and for our workers.

All of these incidents are a good reminder that you can’t always trust what the GPS is telling you. If you’re unsure or unfamiliar with the area take a little bit of extra caution. If your exit, highway or street is closed, don’t panic. The beauty of GPS is that if you miss that turn or take a different street it will recalculate your route and still get you to your destination.

Before you set out on a summer road trip, check several sources for information on directions and road closures. Check our traffic website, call 511 or follow @wsdot on Twitter. And when you’re out on the road, pay attention to visual clues on the road like signs and barricades. Remember that if your exit, highway or street is closed, it’s for a reason.

Michael and Dwight said it best:
Michael drives into a lake - fixed audio from Aaron Crabtree on Vimeo.