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GPS could lead you astray, with dire consequences

By Bill Gephardt | Posted - Jun 12th, 2013 @ 8:49am


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SALT LAKE CITY — Getting from point A to point B has gotten a lot easier because of GPS navigation. But what if one of those satellite maps steers you in the wrong direction?

A Park City man said he was following GPS directions along a road he thought would take him to a highway, but he has pictures that show some of the damage done to his motor home in Goblin Valley when the GPS was wrong. The rutted and rock-filled road eventually crippled the RV's driveline.

Two days later, he hiked out of the remote canyon.

"Twenty-seven miles or so of this awful, near-death experience, we thought we weren't going to make it," said attorney Ben Stanley.

He specializes in technology issues, and he's certainly sympathetic. His GPS led him and his family over a mountain goat of a road in Idaho.

"She took us on the other side of the mountain and up and over the mountain, on an old goat trail that was rushed out and rutted and really dangerous sheer cliffs on one side," he said.

After 27 miles of very white-knuckled driving, Stanley finally made it to the campground he was looking for. Even though there was a well-paved route, he said the GPS took him on a ride that cracked one of the car's wheel rims, damaged the axles and pushed it out of alignment. But was it his GPS' fault?

"There's a lot of compelling arguments to be made for both sides," he said.

Cases of a GPS device sending people out on decrepit roads have made headlines. In August 2008, a California group of 13 adults and 10 kids lost their way in one of Southern Utah's roughest and most remote landscapes near Grosvenor Arch. Their GPS only pointed to dirt roads that lead to nowhere, or dead-ended at cliff tops.

Rangers at Death Valley National Park have seen the phenomenon so much, they've begun calling it "Death by GPS."

Stanley believes since the technology generally does great in getting us around cities, we become overconfident of its ability in the backcountry.

"I think we get a false sense of security," he said. "She's got such a pleasing voice, and is so right with so many details, where you are at to the fraction of a mile. You start to think this thing is really infallible."

A Los Angeles woman learned the opposite when she went for a walk in Park City in 2009. Her phone's Google Maps app suggested she walk along S.R. 224, even though it has no sidewalks. She got hit by a car, and later sued Google for providing dangerous walking directions. But a Utah district judge dismissed the claim, saying since it was an unpaid service, the usual duty owed to the customer did not exist.

"It's an uphill battle for the plaintiff," Stanley said, "because those big manufacturers of GPS technology are fairly confident they've done their part to waive all of their responsibility."

Stanley said that's why consumers must pay attention to what's inside the disclaimer that pops up when they activate a navigation system for the first time. Clicking on "I agree" carries a lot of weight.

"So many of us skip the form screens. I just want to use my new toy, show me how it works. Don't tell me about all the things, all the legalese, all the warnings," he said.

If you're not updating your device's software or firmware or any of the other things spelled out in those disclaimers, you could easily undercut any claim you'd make against a GPS manufacturer.

While the legal world may still be sorting out whose responsible for bad directions, your insurer will likely say you're at fault for the damage. Blaming the GPS device doesn't absolve you of your responsibility to pay attention to everything, including signage, speed limits, and other information about the road your GPS leads you to.

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