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Transportation United States Technology

'Death By GPS' Increasing In America's Wilderness 599

An anonymous reader writes "Every year, more and more Americans are dying in deserts and wildernesses because they rely on their GPS units (and, to some degree, their cellphones) to always be accurate. The Sacramento Bee quotes Death Valley wilderness coordinator Charlie Callagan: 'It's what I'm beginning to call death by GPS ... 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.'"
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'Death By GPS' Increasing In America's Wilderness

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  • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:33PM (#35094156)
    Come on, folks, you're traveling between Portland OR and Las Vegas NV, and your GPS says the most direct route is over some gravel Forest Service road in the Eastern Oregon mountains... In the winter... You take it? Really?

    Your GPS takes you down some deserted desert road that peters away into sand in the mifddle of Death Valley... Really?

    There's not much you can do about MORONS, one way or another, they may kill themselves.
  • by Kenja ( 541830 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:33PM (#35094162)
    You call it "Death by GPS" I call it "evolution".
  • Darwin at work. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mark-t ( 151149 ) <> on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:39PM (#35094282) Journal
    Sorry if I sound unsympathetic... but really, who starts to drive through a large unpopulated expanse of land without at least making sure they have enough gas to make it across? I've seen "Last Chance" gas stations before, and in my experience they are totally serious... dare I even say deadly serious. If you don't fill up there, you can very well not expect to ever see another human being again for as long as you live... which might not be very long from now if you decide that you have enough gas just because your low gas indicator isn't lit.
  • A map is a map (Score:1, Insightful)

    by kenholm3 ( 1400969 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:41PM (#35094334) Homepage Journal
    Whether that map is electronic (GPS) or not (origami), maps can be out-of-date or just plain wrong. Nattrass said. "A map in that case may have been a lifesaver for them." Not so. If they had a GOOD/ACCURATE map, it could have been a lifesaver. Had they a map from 100 years ago, it would have been useless.
  • by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:46PM (#35094412) Homepage
    Though that's also a deceit (effectively) by the GPS unit / their manufacturers don't tend to advertise their capabilities as "may be wrong" (and how can random people know up front?)

    Related: some solutions could stop insisting on loading the needed data only at the start of a particular journey. Allowing to have recent and fairly good offline maps of large areas, also where there's no cellular signal, would really help with the whole concept of GPS...
  • by corsec67 ( 627446 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:53PM (#35094522) Homepage Journal

    their manufacturers don't tend to advertise their capabilities as "may be wrong"

    All of the Garmin Nuvi GPS units I have had have a warning screen that shows every single time that it is turned on saying this.

    This probably is more a feature of people liking to be getting orders, even when those orders are wrong.

    Not to say that I am immune. I have found my self going down roads where if my GPS quit I would only have a vague idea of how to get home from that location.

  • by royallthefourth ( 1564389 ) <> on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:55PM (#35094560)

    If you actually talk like this in person, then you are probably the most disgusting, insufferable asshole that anyone around you has ever met.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @03:58PM (#35094622) Homepage
    Plain ol maps don't tell you they 'may be wrong' either. It comes with the territory. No matter what you are using for a guide - maps, mystic revelations, signs from God - you still still have to look out the windshield and think occasionally. In the Olden Days when I did Search and Rescue in Colorado we didn't have GPS. We had maps. And we ended up pulling out idiots from all sorts of places because the 'map told them' they could get from one abandoned mining town to another over a 13000 foot pass in a Volkswagen.

    And your second wish has been granted. There are a number of iPhone apps which do allow you to download maps before you head out. Very classy. Garmin ought to be scared - the iPhone is a hell of a lot better GPS than my Oregon 400: better display, better GPS chip, better battery life (really!). The only advantage that the Garmin has is that it's completely waterproof and I can carry a passle of AA batteries with me.
  • []

    this story haunts me. because i could have done this. any of us could

    and for those of you assholes talking about the darwin awards or death by stupidity: i think arrogant hubris is a pretty good candidate gene for being weeded from the homo sapiens gene pool. when stories like these arise, there's two types of people: those who feel saddened at a pointless death, aka, human beings, and those who think that the occasion is an opportunity to trumpet how smart they are, aka, assholes with an ego problem and lacking empathy

    you're so fucking smart and immune to tragedy, huh? until a tragedy happens to you or yours. try showing some basic simple respect for the dead, asswipes

  • by SpaghettiPattern ( 609814 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:08PM (#35094794)
    I'm doing a skipper course where navigation and calculating water levels are the most stressed topics. I quickly realised that going to sea without training will get you killed pretty soon and very certainly. Same holds for deserts and wilderness in general. Hell, there are cities where you get killed if you wind up in the wrong 'hood.

    The thing is that so many times all will be well with a car, a desert and a some navigation gadget. Taking care of the exceptions is the hard part. Very much like coding.
  • by sanosuke001 ( 640243 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:12PM (#35094860)
    I always felt Bear Grylls was a hack; Les Stroud I enjoy watching because he actually walks you through what he is doing to survive. If Bear gets screwed somehow, he's got people to back him up. Bear goes for the crazy shit to sell TV. Les doesn't have that luxury; he can't even contact help. If he doesn't show up in the seven days, they go look for him. Les Stroud is much more believable. That feces water thing is bullshit... Bear is completely stupid.
  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:12PM (#35094872)

    When we told the operator that he was well outside the marked channels and that he had struck a rock that's clearly marked on all navigation charts, he simply replied, "Well my GPS told me to turn left here."

    I grew up living on a rocky point with reefs offshore in an area with 16 foot tides, and every couple of years my father and brother and I would rescue boaters who'd run aground. This was back when LORAN was still pretty new and GPS undreamed of, but the universal feature of people who hit the rocks was that the only navigation aid on board was--at best--a road map.

    A big part of the problem is that people are simply ignorant. If you didn't grow up in an area or haven't lived there for a long time it can be hard to appreciate the risks. And most people grow up in urban or suburban areas that effectively have no (natural) risks at all. People like that simply don't know enough to appreciate that the landscape and climate can kill them if they don't take the appropriate precautions. GPS is just an enabling device that helps that ignorance get them killed: it creates an illusion of safety and certainty that they might otherwise not have, although according to the article people were plenty able to get into trouble without it.

  • by starfishsystems ( 834319 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:13PM (#35094884) Homepage
    Any competent navigator knows to treat GPS as a tool for verifying where you are. Period.

    Unless all other means of verification (visual, compass, sextant, RDF, depth sounder, radar, LORAN, dead reckoning) are unavailable, you should never rely on GPS alone.

    Boaters should be particularly suspicious of GPS devices which instruct them to "take next exit right after overpass".
  • There's not much you can do about MORONS, one way or another, they may kill themselves.

    Nature has been killing the ill-prepared for as long as there have been humans. Why do you think her opposite is called Nurture?
  • by eltonito ( 910528 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:23PM (#35095032)

    I concur, but I'd also argue that certain gadgets also suppress ones danger instinct, which is highly relevant in the cases presented by the article. The stranded drivers all sensed they were making the wrong move leading up to their incidents, but they failed to act on it because they allowed the gadget pre-empted or overrode their instincts. These weren't necessarily unintelligent people, they simply trusted the technology more than their instincts which lead to a series of poor choices.

    As much as I'd love to crack jokes about Darwinism in these cases, I can look back on my life and find several instances where my reliance on a product/gadget/technology got me into trouble. I imagine most people could find similar moments somewhere in their past. The difference is that those mistakes weren't as serious, didn't get publicized and they likely didn't occur in Death Valley.

  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:23PM (#35095040) Homepage

    The article is a little unfair; to be fair it would have to subtract people saved by GPS.

    Frankly, people have always gotten lost, dating right back to at least the time Moses wandered for 40 years in the Sinai. Surely GPS has also gotten people out of trouble. The question is, what's the net effect?

  • by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:29PM (#35095128) Homepage

    I'm sure anybody can make a bad decision at any time, but it doesn't mean the mistake isn't stupid. Death by stupidity is a normal part of life. It's not an issue of being inherently smarter. It's an issue of "somebody's going to do it". Ideally, the survivors learn from the mistakes of others and don't repeat history.

    Instead of returning to the exit, they consulted a highway map and picked a secondary route that skirted the Wild Rogue Wilderness, a remote area of southwestern Oregon.

    From James Kim, I learn that I shouldn't choose alternate routes that take me near wilderness unless I'm prepared to spend time in the wilderness.

  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @04:41PM (#35095310)

    The other problem is even the map updates are frequently best guesses.

    It would seem that another problem is that these units have a city-dweller's notion of what consitutes a "road" and a "car". Outside of cities the concept of "road" is a lot vaguer, and vehicle type is a lot more relevant. I've been down "roads" in a Willies Jeep that you wouldn't want to take in anything else, and used "roads" that are only seasonably passable. Some "roads" are only drivable in late summer and mid-winter (too muddy at other times); some are impassable in winter due to snow or spring due to flooding; some are passable only in winter due to to freezing (and only then if they've been plowed); and so on.

    There is no reason why most of this knowledge could not be respresented in a GPS navigation unit, but the people who write software for them apparently don't ever actually use them go out of the city.

  • when i talk about lack of empathy and arrogant hubris, it helps not to come charging in and making yourself a poster child for exactly this sort of character defect

    "There is no reason I should feel saddened at pointless death"

    it's called empathy. it is the basis for all of human morality. that's the reason why you should feel saddened. other than that, a simple basic human respect for the dead is reason why you might tone down your i'm-so-smart-and-so-immune-to-simple-human-mistakes arrogant ignorance

    "It doesn't make me any less human to not give a flying fuck about that dude."

    actually, yes it does. if you lack basic human empathy you lack one the defining characteristics of what makes us human

    simple human reciprocity means i respect you, you respect me. i feel for you. you feel for me. yet you come in with your stellar social skills making the pre-emptive statement: "feel nothing for me because i feel nothing for you". what a social genius

    unless of course you believe you are immune from any need for aid or mutual support, that you are an infallible island that requires no support, even emergency, from your fellow man. then go ahead and preemptively announce your "i'm special" status. like i said, genius

  • Re:It happens (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Jaysyn ( 203771 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @05:11PM (#35095736) Homepage Journal

    Pretty hard to protect people from their own stupidity.

  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @05:20PM (#35095898)

    And that's different from any other breakdown exactly how?

    GPS reduces some of the consequences of doing things in the outdoors, so people engage in riskier behavior than they otherwise would. It's called "moral hazard".

    For example, I can use GPS to navigate to almost anywhere in the US, including some places that almost never see people. To flesh out the example a little more, I've worked the last couple of summers in Yellowstone. There are some interesting places there that don't have trails going to them. A GPS can lead the dumbest tourist several miles away from any people. And as long as things go well, it can lead them back.

    The problem is when things don't go well. The top three things are breaking or losing the only GPS they had, getting hurt, and getting bad weather or staying till after dark. In the first case, too often there's no backup plan, if the GPS stops working. Nobody made even a basic effort to memorize landmarks or bring a map.

    Second, if you break something, get a bad case of diarrhea from the local parasites, or come down with an altitude/exertion related medical condition (way too common in high altitude areas), then it's possible for you to end up in a situation where either your group has to split up (and there's only one GPS to go around) or if you were soloing, you get to stay put for a few days and hope someone finds you in the middle of nowhere before you die.

    And bad weather can kill the unprepared fast even if they know exactly where they are. Cross country hiking can be much slower especially in low visibility weather than hiking on a trail (even worse it can be highly variable, if you accidentally run into dense vegetation or rocky terrain that you bypassed on the way in). And I always carry a flashlight (with batteries that can last a full night) just in case I don't make it back before dark.

    Sure, dumb people can get into major trouble, just following regular trails. But GPS allows them to get into trouble in the middle of nowhere, where nobody would think of looking for them, making any bad situation more lethal. GPS doesn't help as much to get them out of trouble. Hence, the problem.

  • Technically (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DarthVain ( 724186 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @05:34PM (#35096178)

    It's not GPS, is the routing software messing up usually due to lack of data (or out of date) as opposed to logical fault. I am pretty sure the satellites had very little to do with it other than say "Your Here!" over and over again.

    Of course I remember when GPS was a "big deal" and specialized, I remember taking a course in it, and having to provide training to others. When units cost thousands of dollars. Of course I am in GIS and understand all the background. Heck there was a time when the US Army would mess with your accuracy just for fun, and you had to try to correct for it!

    Now any smuck can go to bestbuy and pick up something for 150$ and it tells you where to go.

    You're supposed to use a tool, not let the tool use you.

  • by jameskojiro ( 705701 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @05:58PM (#35096656) Journal

    For years we have wondered what will happen if machines make life too easy for people will be all end up like idiocracy????

    Well this is a perfect example of a Selection Pressure that is re-emerging, we should not try to "Fix it".

  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @06:39PM (#35097412)

    It is my opinion that the GPS manufacturers are:

    4) Expecting you to read the manuals thoroughly before relying on a complex computer system.

    Hell, you pretty much spell it out twice, as you explain that you later "discovered" two rather important features of your navigation system. But hey - I'm sure they aren't covered in the manual at all, and are hidden features that you're supposed to pay extra for.

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