[LINK] Another GPS/human error story - GPS usage in Au compared to USA, Europe

Robin Whittle rw at firstpr.com.au
Sat Aug 7 15:12:39 AEST 2010

GPS units with Darth Vader's voice . . .

Hi Jan,

I think we are going to be constantly entertained by these stories
where GPS boxes and other smarty-pants devices and software lead the
unwary astray.  People getting bogged to the axles up the tail end of
some forlorn bush track at 3AM when it is raining cats and dogs etc.

I understand that many people find GPS devices useful.

I am not sure whether a GPS with its voice and display screen
distraction is worse than relying on a map - but at least the GPS
screen can be seen without having to reach for a map, especially in
the dark.  Some people can't read maps anyway, so I guess GPS is the
only solution for them.

My impression is that in the USA (in the South at least) roads are
less friendly in a number of ways.  The traffic lights are far
cheaper and have less lights, making them harder to interpret.  The
lights are suspended by cables or poles over the intersection, rather
than the Australian arrangement of being on either side of the road,
with a total of four or more separate poles, so providing 2 to 4 way
redundancy.  For instance the left turn lights have no arrow - they
are just to the left of the straight-ahead arrows, swinging back and
forth on cables over the center of the intersection.

On country roads, at least in hilly areas, I got the impression there
were fewer opportunities to pull over than in Australia, such as to
make or take a phone call, or check the map.  Also, in my experience,
the signage in the USA was far worse than that in Australia.
Short-distance and long-distance direction signs are more prevalent,
larger and more standardised in Australia than in the USA.  Likewise
speed limit signs.

People complain about the nanny state here, but I think investment in
signage, traffic lights and pull-off zones is well worthwhile.

So perhaps US roads are built with less care for drivers, making them
a more dangerous environment for pulling over to check a map, or use
a cell-phone.  This is an argument in favour of GPS units.

In a city like Melbourne, or Sydney, it can be difficult to decide
how best to get to a destination in general, and then difficult to
know how to get to the exact street, or part of the street.

In a city such as Houston, the problem seems to be far worse.  There
are a plethora of freeways, and the freeways grow and change their
connections at a sufficient rate that most people don't have a
coherent idea of how to use them, except in particular areas which
they are most familiar with.  Roadworks affect where you get off a
freeway, and the GPS probably doesn't know about this.

In Melbourne and Sydney, I get the impression that everyone has a
street directory - though that may be changing with the adoption of
GPS boxes.  In Houston, I got the impression that almost no-one had a
street directory in their car or at home.  When my wife and I bought
one, it was an object of interest for many people, since it was years
since they had one of their own, and so much had changed since then.
 I found that extensive discussions were common about how to get from
one place to another.

In Melbourne, if you are in Berwick and want to get to Heidelberg,
the discussion would be something like do X, then Y, to get on the
freeway, and then get of it at Z . . .

That's because Melbourne only has one or perhaps two freeways in any
given area.  In Houston, the whole area is criss-crossed by freeways,
since most major roads have been converted to freeways, with their
feeder roads on each side for access to businesses along the road.

You have to be pretty keen to use the back roads, with all their
junctions, turns, railway crossings with long, slow-moving freight
trains etc.  (Texas freight trains honk for about 30 seconds and take
15 minutes to pass through a level crossing.  They are long, slow and
in no hurry.)

Also, Melbourne is reasonably flat and open with a somewhat grid-like
set of roads, so if you miss Burke Rd, you can always do much the
same thing via Warrigal Rd.

Sydney isn't like this, and the middle of Brisbane has lots of
one-way streets.  I haven't tried driving in European cities, but
they are far more dense and randomly structured than Melbourne.

In Houston, the freeways are fast and there are a bewildering number
of decisions to make.  Sometimes, all I can see is freeway - we are
above the ground so far that no buildings or natural horizon are
visible.  There are impressive muscular ribbons of concrete snaking
off to various parts of the horizon, one of which we will soon be
travelling on.  They are so numerous most of them are known by a
letter of the alphabet and two digits.

(BTW, in Texas, the gutsy reality of freeways is deemed to be good
enough.  In Melbourne, we are so concerned about freeways'
self-esteem that we dress them up in colours, with generally ugly
sound barriers and hit-or-miss art installations.  Texas freeways are
completely self-satisfied the day they are born.)

Once you miss a turn, you have to get on to the feeder road on the
right (these are ubiquitous, but I have never seen them in Australia,
since a freeway is not intended to be a road which one uses to access
actual buildings), to do a U turn under the next underpass, and then
try to figure out how to get to the freeway you missed.

The Rand-McNally Houston street directory


is much thicker than the Melways, and is spiral bound.  The
cartography is denser and of a lower quality than the esteemed
Melways approach.  I recall it being expensive and quite hard to
find, whereas a Melways can be bought almost anywhere.

I understand there are much more detailed and expensive street maps
for professional drivers - but I couldn't find these on the Net, and
perhaps these are being replaced by GPS units.

Since people can't very well fill their cars with up-to-date street
directories of wherever they are going when travelling out of town,
its not surprising that GPS devices are so popular.

The generally lower adoption of street directories in the USA has
been evident, I think, for years - in the form of many websites
having maps and very extensive instructions on how to get to the
organization's physical location from various directions.   Maps have
become more common in Australia due to the ease with which a map can
be added to a website, but I think no-one here bothers with
paragraphs of which roads and turns to take as I have seen in some US

I refuse to drive with a crappy little box running vastly complex
software on probably dodgy data, telling me what to do in a cheesy
recorded or synthesised voice what to do with the car I am driving.

The solution is to stop, fire up the 3G link on the netbook and look
at Google Maps - or have the Navigator do this while driving.  That's
much more interesting and gives me a chance to feel like I know where
I am going.

However, when I saw this:

  Darth Vader recording for TomTom GPS - behind the scenes

I was seriously tempted.

I would never normally take an interest in an ugly, boofy, SUV like this:


but if there is ever a shiny black one of these for hire next time we
visit the USA, and if it had a GPS with Darth Vader's voice AND if
the GPS responded to voice requests for direction, we would find it
hard to resist.

Driving around the South, IN Darth Vader's head . . . . on a Sunday
morning, listening to the radio with live preachers' call and
response with their animated congregations, or during the week and
having the space filled with bluegrass, country music, Neil Young, or
the larger-than life voice of Rush Limbaugh.

Every time a song on the radio mentions a US place name, Darth would
take a break from rambling on about past exploits - to give us new
directions.  Likewise the preachers mentioning Old Testament towns
and cities.

 - Robin

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