Choosing the road less traveled, at the behest of their GPS system, led a Nevada couple to a frightening, snowbound Christmas ordeal in Oregon. John Rhoads, 65, and his wife, Starry Bush-Rhoads, 67, used their Toyota Sequoia's navigation system to guide them home to Reno from Portland, and were unable to call for help when they became stuck on a deserted road.
Their experience is raising questions about the trustworthiness of automated navigation systems, and experts are encouraging drivers not to solely rely on them in unfamiliar terrain. Instead, drivers should double-check to avoid potentially dangerous areas.
"You have to keep your brain on," said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesperson for the New York chapter of the American Automobile Association. "Totally depending on these devices can send you on some really out-of-the-way journeys."
Right Turn To Nowhere
The couple was traveling through the Winema-Fremont National Forest in Eastern Oregon on Christmas and apparently selected the option for the shortest route on their navigation system, according to media reports. That led them to turn right onto a secluded road they followed for 35 miles.
They were just outside the town of Silver Lake when they drove into 18-inch snow too deep for their four-wheel-drive SUV to handle. They dug out once, but soon became trapped again. They didn't see another soul all weekend.
The Rhoadses had enough food, water and warm clothes to survive the chilly, isolated weekend unharmed. But they were unable to get a signal on either of their GPS-enabled cell phones for more than two days. Weather changes seem to have eventually allowed a weak signal to 911, where a sheriff's dispatcher was able to pinpoint their location. A deputy soon towed their vehicle out of the snow.
"GPS nearly did them in, and GPS saved them," Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger told the Associated Press.
The type of cell phone or carrier used by the couple was not disclosed. A call to their home on Tuesday was not answered and a message was not immediately returned.
ABC News reported that the device was made by Garmin, and quoted a statement from the company saying, in part, "drivers must always remember that GPS [devices] provide route suggestions. They do not cause drivers to make driving decisions."
Evinger said the route selection led to the problem. "It will give you options to pick the shortest route," said the lawman. "You certainly get the shortest route. But it may not be a safe route."
Leading Drivers Astray?
There have been sporadic reports of GPS devices, which sometimes rely on outdated maps, leading drivers into trouble.
In January 2008, a California man in a New York rental car followed GPS instructions and turned onto the tracks of the Metro North Railroad. He wasn't hurt when an oncoming train struck the empty car.
In August 2008, tourists in Utah were stranded near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument when their GPS led them onto rough roads that came close to perilous cliffs.
Sinclair recalled a recent trip to the Bronx in New York City using a Cobra GPS device that "sent me on a grand tour of the entirety of the Bronx. I knew it wasn't right." He recommends that drivers preview directions suggested by a GPS device before following them.
When devices offer a choice between the shortest route, the fastest route, and one that avoids toll charges, Sinclair advised, "use the preview option to see what roads that is going to take you on and whether or not you should follow that advice."