HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
January 22, 2007, Herald Journal

The blind leading the clueless


It was bound to happen.

In Germany, a 46-year-old man was driving along a busy roadway when he made an abrupt left turn, went up over the curb, and found himself stranded on a railway track.

Several trains were delayed while waiting for a tow truck to remove the vehicle.

What caused this unexpected maneuver? Was it mechanical failure? Was the driver swerving to avoid a lost puppy?


He turned left because the friendly voice of his satellite navigation system told him to turn left.

It doesn’t matter that there was no left turn for him to take at that particular point in his journey; he was simply following instructions.

The case in Germany was just one of several such incidents that have been reported, and this is only the beginning.

Many bizarre incidents have been blamed on these systems, and some of these defy belief.

In one case, a motorist left a roadway and drove his car into a pile of sand at a high rate of speed.

“I just thought the navigation system knew a shortcut,” the bewildered driver told police.

One is reminded of the story that circulated years ago about the driver of one of those behemoth motor homes.

While traveling down the interstate, he left the wheel to walk to the rear and make himself a sandwich.

A spectacular crash resulted, and, when questioned, the driver said he couldn’t understand what had happened. He had set the cruise control before leaving the driver’s seat.

The new navigation systems are just another example of people expecting technology to replace common sense.

I have been anticipating problems of this kind since I learned these devices were being installed in vehicles.

Gone are the days when people will actually take the time and responsibility to look at a map to figure out where they are going before they set off on a journey.

No more will men remain respectably lost to avoid having to ask strangers for directions.

Now, we have satellite navigation systems and GPS.

As a result, people will be more lost than ever.

There is a bright side to all of this; it will be a bonanza for the legal community.

Just imagine, people will have a whole new way to avoid taking personal responsibility.

“I am sorry I ran over those pedestrians, officer, but it wasn’t my fault. My satnav told me to turn there.”

One can envision legions of slippery lawyers sitting on the sidelines and licking their chops as they watch sales of these devices continue to climb.

No doubt it will result in new defense arguments, and mountains of litigation.

When there is an incident, who is responsible?

It certainly can’t be the errant driver.

Is it the satnav equipment manufacturer? The software developer? The retailer who sells the devices?

The courts will be inundated with self-righteous bumblers claiming the voices in their GPS system made them do it.

And, it isn’t only the route-finding equipment that we have to worry about.

Vehicles are now being equipped with mechanisms to help drivers reverse without looking where they are going, and even automated parking systems that will parallel park vehicles whose driver lacks that skill.

Seriously, if a person is not capable of parking a car, do we really want him loose in traffic?

There are some frightening days ahead.

Now, in addition to dodging drivers who are putting on makeup, reading the paper or eating breakfast, we will have to contend with directionally-challenged zombies who get behind the wheel and drive blindly along, waiting for instructions from a computer.

We have come full circle.

For decades, scientists searched for ways to impart “human intelligence” into machines. It seems that they have accomplished that goal.

Now, if they can just find a way to instill some intelligence into humans, they will really have accomplished something.