All That's Trucking

Does using GPS rot your brain?

June 17, 2011

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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."


  1. 1. Norm Cobb Jr [ July 04, 2011 @ 12:02PM ]

    I've been using Garmin GPS units for truck navigation for the last three years. I've never driven off a cliff or down a boat ramp, nor will I. These are ridiculous urban myths spread around by those who have no idea of how to use a GPS or very little experience at using one.

    I'm a 24 year veteran of the trucking industry and the GPS units are in fact the greatest navigational tools of our time. That being said I find it has made paper maps utterly useless as my GPS has a map in it with which I can view any road I may need to view right on it's screen by zooming in our out. I tossed my paper maps out almost two years ago after I gained enough confidence in navigating strictly by a GPS. Has it suggested I do somethings I shouldn't do with an 18 wheeler? Yes, it has, but I and only I have that steering wheel in my hands. The GPS doesn't have "experience" I do! So ultimately I make the decision to either follow it's suggestions or ignore t

  2. 2. Alan Halliday [ July 07, 2011 @ 05:06PM ]

    I use gps but map my way on paper first. gps is wrong alot. totally usless in citys

  3. 3. Norm Cobb Jr [ July 14, 2011 @ 02:47AM ]

    Alan it's not the GPS that's useless in the cities, it's the map data that's at fault. Why is the map data a problem? Well a third party makes the map data for the GPS manufacturers and they get their data from what the states and municipalities submit to them. Hmmm... so if the states and municipalities like NY state and NYC mark bridges a foot lower than they really are then they are doing a disservice to anyone using a GPS. So who's to blame when the GPS wants you to divert around a bridge that you don't need to divert around? Not the GPS nor the GPS manufacturer nor the GPS map supplier are at fault. It's the State and municipalities that choose to mark things inaccurately! So stand up and be counted with all of us who want the government to step in and straighten out these states and municipalities who don't or won't give accurate info on their roadways to map companies!

  4. 4. Deborah Lockridge [ July 14, 2011 @ 03:12AM ]

    Norm, the map data is indeed an issue. Check out this recent article to read about what Illinois is doing about it. <a href="" target="_blank"></a>

  5. 5. Norm Cobb Jr [ July 14, 2011 @ 03:30PM ]

    This puts a smile on my face to see someone starting to see it correctly, but what about the other 49 states?
    Thanks for posting this Deb! :-)


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Deborah Lockridge

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All That's Trucking blog is just that – the editor's take on anything and everything related to trucking, with the help of guest posts from other HDT editors. Author Deborah Lockridge's career as an award-winning trucking journalist started in 1990.


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