The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion Donna Cooper and her family were lost for three days in Death Valley. Now, a ranger wants to prevent cases like hers by going to the root of the problem.
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The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion

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The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion

The GPS: A Fatally Misleading Travel Companion

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Now, if you drive south from Lake Tahoe, you'll have spectacular scenery ahead of you and eventually, you'll be in California's Death Valley. Drivers there, as in many places, have traded in paper maps for GPS. But in such remote places, an over-reliance on satellite navigation can be a matter of life and death.�Krissy Clark, of member station KQED, explains.

Unidentified Man #1: Picture of us.

KRISSY CLARK: I'm standing in Death Valley, where each summer - yes, summer - a quarter-million tourists pry themselves from air-conditioned cars into 120-degree heat to snap pictures of glittering salt flats. They come from Japan, from Chile, from Holland, from Florida.�Different accents, same traveling companion, suction-cupped to the dashboard.

Unidentified Man #2: GPS.

Unidentified Man #3: GPS.

Unidentified Man #4: GPS.

Unidentified Man #5: GPS.

Unidentified Man #6: GPS.

Unidentified Man #7: GPS.

Unidentified Woman: We named her Nell.

CLARK: Whatever you call her, she's got an offer that's hard to refuse.

GPS Voice: Select destination.

(Soundbite of beep)

CLARK: But when dozens of abandoned dirt roads lie between you and that destination, things between you and Nell, the GPS, can get tricky. That's what Donna Cooper, of Pahrump, Nevada, discovered last July on a day trip to Death Valley.

GPS Voice: D, E, A...

CLARK: After a long day, Cooper and her family asked Nell, the GPS, for the shortest route back home. And in that confident voice, those magic words.

GPS Voice: Please proceed to the highlighted route.

(Soundbite of beep)

CLARK: But what came next did not compute.

Ms. DONNA COOPER: Go 550 feet, and turn right.

(Soundbite of beep)

Ms. COOPER: Well, at 550 feet it was like a little path. And then...

GPS Voice: Please proceed to the highlighted route.

Ms. COOPER: Go a quarter of a mile and turn left.

(Soundbite of beep)

Ms. COOPER: There was nothing there. She had me running in circles for hours and hours and hours.

CLARK: Death Valley Ranger Charlie Callagan says Donna Cooper is not the only visitor who's relied on GPS and been seriously lost. It happens a couple times a year now.

Mr. CHARLIE CALLAGAN (Ranger, Death Valley): And they'll usually volunteer it themselves. You know, it's like: The GPS told me to go this direction.

CLARK: Callagan's been asking himself what, exactly, is going on? Why is GPS going astray? Then he had an idea.

(Soundbite of car rumble)

CLARK: To explain, he drives me out to a lonely corner of the valley.

Mr. CALLAGAN: Ah. Ooh. Did you see that?


A line has just popped up in the corner of my GPS screen. Supposedly, it represents a road about to intersect the one we're driving on. But out the window there is no other road, just desert.

Mr. CALLAGAN: So that road there, no longer exists. It's been probably 40 years. But somebody ended up driving on it because it showed up on their GPS.

CLARK: Two summers ago, a mother and son on a camping trip had GPS in their car and got stuck on an abandoned mining road for five days.

Mr. CALLAGAN: She barely survived. The boy did not survive.

CLARK: Callagan wondered if part of the problem was that out here, GPS companies might be relying on old maps with roads that have long been closed. To test his theory, he went online and checked if the road where the little boy died was on any of the maps used by major GPS companies like Google Earth or Navteq or TomTom.

Mr. CALLAGAN: And it was there. I'm not sure if I could use the words that I thought. I mean, I was kind of like, this isn't right. Something needs to be done.

Mr. MATT RINALDI (TomTom): OK. So yeah, click on our little area that we're working in...

CLARK: That's when Callagan got in touch with Matt Rinaldi. He helps maintain road data for TomTom. Together, they combed through the company's maps.

Mr. RINALDI: So I'm going to delete a road. I would cross with a red color, and take the section of the road out.

CLARK: In the end, they changed or deleted more than 150 roads in Death Valley. Now, Callagan's working to update maps for Navteq and Google Earth, too. But, he points out, at the root of these mishaps in the desert is something much older than GPS technology.

In 1849, Death Valley got its name when a wagon train from the East tried to find the shortest route to California and got lost.

Mr. CALLAGAN: Somebody had a map, and somebody said, this is a faster way to get to the gold fields. And deep down, back in their brain, the common sense says, you know, this is not the wisest thing.

CLARK: As for Donna Cooper's family, three days after they got lost, a search and rescue helicopter found them. Everyone survived except Nell, the GPS - though that's not what Cooper was calling her by then.

Ms. COOPER: Called her a few names, a couple four-letter words.

CLARK: And yet Cooper has not lost faith. She has a new GPS now, named Rosie.

GPS Voice: You have arrived.

(Soundbite of beep)

CLARK: For NPR News, I'm Krissy Clark.

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