Why You May Not be Able to Use GPS in Your Car Soon

Apr 30

A little over a decade ago about half of my time driving was either spent getting lost or getting un-lost. Mr. Thomas, of the famed “Thomas Guides,” was my friend, but the kind of needy friend that requires constant attention and never quite gives you what you need.  I often found myself looking at the maps, almost crashing into cars, poles, traffic signs, and domestic pets as I traced faded roads and scrutinized invisible coffee-stained print.  GPS changed all that, first with little maps that tracked my progress in real-time with a blinking dot, then with specialized navigation systems that read directions to me in a sexy English accent (actually, Australian is best), and finally with navigation apps on my iPhone.

Well, guess what?  It might be time to dust off Mr. Thomas and his guides because the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) recently published a distracted driving study that strongly advises lawmakers to eliminate or ban electronic devices that contain most of the major elements of a decent GPS navigation system.

So what does the study, entitled “Visual-Manual NHTSA Driver Distraction Guidelines for In-Vehicle Electronic Devices,” recommend legislatures ban from cars?

  • Continuously scrolling text on screens visible to drivers:  Ok, maybe I can understand this one because it can be a bit distracting to try to glance up and down as you wait for a sentence to finish (but I do like seeing traffic alerts).
  • Any electronic device that display 30 characters or more to driversApparently, the NHTSA thinks that drivers have no free will and will be compelled to read anything placed in front of them like gerbils chasing after shiny objects.  Have faith in us, NHTSA!  We’re not so easily distracted that we…wait…is that another YouTube video of kitties playing piano.  Oh, my God!  Is that real?  How cute!  Now, what was I saying?
  • Moving images on electronic screens viewable to drivers:  This is a bit more problematic.  If moving images of any sort are banned, how exactly is a dynamic navigation system that continuously updates your location in real-time supposed to work?  Answer:  It’s not.  In fact, if moving images of any sort are categorically banned, you can say bye-bye to your GPS.  Instantly.

I understand what the NHTSA is trying to reduce distractions and keep us safe, but doesn’t the utility that GPS provides outweigh the small distraction it presents?  In fact, doesn’t the NHTSA already acknowledge the overriding utility of several distracting readouts currently in cars?  My RPM gauge is a visual distraction, why not take that out?  What about my odometer?  I don’t like seeing all of the miles piling up on my car.  What about my fuel gauge?  That’s pretty distracting these days with gas prices.  And what about my freakin’ speedometer?  Why not take that out and just have my car beep when I’m above or below the speed limits (or when I hit another car)?

Admittedly, the NHTSA does make an exception for electronic devices in cars that display static maps and images which don’t change.  Of course, this kind of defeats the purpose of GPS in the first place, doesn’t it?

I guess I should just get used to it.  Give in.  It will probably happen anyway.  A life without GPS… sigh…I’ll probably just stay home.  And work at home.  And just be at home…I could always venture out into the world; return to the land of digitally deprived driving.  Take out my paper fold-up maps spread across my steering wheel, blocking half the view out my windshield, place my open Thomas guides across my lap,  coffee spilling on my pants while I swerve through traffic.  It’s safer that way.  Right?  Because a GPS is much too distracting.


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