Jan. 15, 2008 -- Decreased prices and user ease have spurred the popularity of Global Positioning System devices in vehicles. Of the new vehicles currently on the road, 15 percent are equipped with the gadgets.
While the electronic backseat drivers can be amazingly accurate, the devices aren't foolproof.
A 32-year-old California computer consultant who said he was only following GPS directions turned onto a train track in Westchester County, N.Y., got stuck as a fast-moving train approached and had to abandon his rental car. It was demolished moments later.
"Clearly the GPS failed him in the sense it should not have been telling him to make a right turn on the railroad tracks," said AAA's Michael Pina. "Just because a machine tells you to do something that is potentially dangerous, you shouldn't do it."
The GPS industry insists it's human, not GPS error, which causes problems like the one in Westchester County. Yet, blindly following the on-screen directions doesn't always work out.
Global positioning devices work by sending signals to Defense Department satellites hovering overhead. They can tell where you are to within 50 feet of something, but telling you where to go is only as good as the mapping software, which isn't always up to date.
A new study by the Navigations Systems Research Foundation in the Netherlands found some systems don't take the type of road into account, routing commercial traffic right through quiet residential neighborhoods. The study went so far as to call the devices "child killers" due to the potential risk to children at play.
"Some commercial truckers, following GPS directions, came on to our parkways," said Westchester Department of Public Safety commissioner Thomas Belfiore, "struck our bridges and filled our parkway with the content of what they were trying to deliver."
AAA suggests drivers who use GPS still carry a good old-fashioned map with them and a well-charged cell phone. To avoid frustration, don't blindly follow your mechanical friend's orders. For example, if you know the general area and a way to avoid traffic then take your preferred route. Good GPS devices will recalculate to get you to your final destination.