Three ways to make GPS navigation safer for users

GPS navigation can lead users into potentially deadly situations. Here are three suggestions for better GPS devices.

The story of a Nevada couple, who followed their GPS unit's directions and ended up stuck in snow for three days, reminds us that we, not the GPS, are responsible for where we drive. But, there are still things GPS makers could and should do that might help.

Here are three ideas, based on my experience using GPS in both business and personal applications for as nearly long as consumer units have been available.

1. GPS devices need to understand that a trip over a certain distance should default to freeways, highways, or whatever the largest road is that will get the user to their destination. I'd kick this feature in, by default, at 100 miles.

It would have kept the most recent incident from happening--keeping the hapless couple on the highway instead of directing them off onto a Forest Road.

Alternately, the device could know when users were more than 100 miles from home--thus in presumably unfamiliar territory, and change its behavior accordingly.

2. The devices, which already contain a huge amount of information, might also be aware of roads likely to be snowbound during the winter and warn users before using them for routing. This might be done as a fairly broad feature, perhaps based on elevation and type of road, but could still prevent drivers from getting stuck in a snow bank.

3. You've probably seen the Spot emergency locator device? How about building that feature into GPS units? It would allow a driver to use satellite technology to report their emergency to authorities.

Because it doesn't rely on the cellular network, a Spot-enabled GPS would work when and where users need it most. (I am thinking particularly of a woman whose son died after their vehicle became stuck in sand in Death Valley for several days).

Not part of the GPS, but it might be worthwhile to do something to help users know when their cellular handset loses signal. Perhaps an alarm after some minutes of no-service could warn drivers that they had headed off into the boonies and might want to reconsider?

In the case of the Nevada couple, it was being able to eventually get a cellular signal that enabled authorities to pinpoint their location--thanks to the handset's own GPS--and make the rescue.

Two related reminders: The couple did several things right, even if one of them wasn't blindly following GPS directions off into the woods. First, they carried emergency supplies, which supported them while they were stuck. Second, they remained with the vehicle, where they were safer, warmer, and easier to find.

GPS technology is a wonderful thing, but it is only as good as the humans using it and who design the systems. The usual choices, "fastest route," "shortest route," and "avoid freeways" need to be tweaked to help users stay out of harm's way when traveling in potentially dangerous areas.

(It is possible that, since I have not used every GPS, that some of these features have been implemented. The ones I use, Garmin and Magellan units, don't have them. Meanwhile, need help picking a GPS? Here's our guide. I am currently using a Garmin nuvi 1490T that I got for $249 at Costco on Black Friday).

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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David Coursey

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