All That's Trucking

Does using GPS rot your brain?

June 17, 2011

On the radio this morning, I heard a report about a young woman who drove her rental SUV right off of a boat launch while trying to use a GPS unit to find her way to a conference.



Last month, a woman was rescued after being stranded for nearly two months on muddy back roads in the northeastern part of Nevada. Her husband, who walked off looking for help, is still missing. The couple was following directions from a GPS device when they got lost.

These are hardly the only examples of people's blind faith in their GPS devices getting them into trouble. And there have been numerous tales of truckers smashing into low overpasses or getting into no-trucks-allowed areas because of either an over reliance on GPS or using one designed for cars rather than trucks.

As Washington Editor Oliver Patton reported earlier this month, last year the Illinois General Assembly was considering a law that would require truck drivers to use a commercial truck GPS system. But before it acted, the Assembly put together a task force to study the issue. Now, based on the task force's recommendations, the governor is poised to sign a bill that takes a more comprehensive approach.

The bill doesn't mandate truck GPS units, but it will require local governments to report road restrictions and designations to the state Department of Transportation, which will post a unified list on its web site.

John McAvoy, director of engineering for Rand McNally and a member of the task force, sees the new reporting requirement as a way for local carriers to get better data from IDOT, and for GPS routing vendors like Rand McNally to get better data for out-of-state carriers that use their systems.

Don Schaefer, executive vice president of the Mid-West Truckers Association and also a member of the task force, put it this way: "The bill puts the burden on local jurisdictions to report road restrictions and designations to the state, so we have this data base so trucks aren't driving blind."

"Local jurisdictions aren't very good at informing anybody but the local truckers what is and what is not a truck route," Schaefer said. "As a result they are easy prey for local police officers to nail the out-of-state trucker who comes in to make a delivery."

Even with the improvements, however, it's still a good idea not to overly rely on those voices that tell you to "turn right here." Last fall, a report came out that being such a slave to your GPS, can be bad for your brain. Three studies by McGill University researchers presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience last November show that avid use of GPS can affect how well our brains function as we age - particularly the hippocampus, which is linked to memory.

It wasn't the first time scientists had sounded a warning about the issue. In this 2009 story in The Week, the author reports that "experts are learning that the brain's navigational system is a two-way street: Yes, our brains determine how we navigate, but our navigational efforts also shape our brains."

Don't get me wrong; these are great systems, and some of the truck-specific GPS units out there are really impressive. But don't let it override your own common sense as a professional truck driver. Take a look at a map before you set out, so you at least have a general idea of where you're going - and you can exercise that spatial awareness and memory the scientists are concerned about.

When I rented a car in Chicago this week, the shuttle bus driver asked me whether I would be using the rental GPS or my own personal one to find my way back to the rental car return. She simply assumed I would be using one. "Neither," I said; "I think I'll take a map."