It's happened yet again.
A trucker in mid-September drove his 18-wheeler on a pedestrian-only New Jersey boardwalk for nearly three miles before being stopped by a police officer. The driver, whose truck damaged 100 ft. of railing and the boardwalk during its removal, told police that he was just following his GPS. This was the second time in two months that a truck took the boardwalk route.
Following a GPS-suggested route is commonplace, but why wouldn't drivers stop immediately when they realized they were no longer on a road?
Moreover, why do we often trust our computers, smartphones and vehicle sensors even when they're obviously giving us bad information – and what can drivers do about it?
Jaco Hamman, associate professor of religion, psychology, and culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School, studies this issue and has written about how machines and humans interact. He is also a long-distance motorcycle rider who uses both maps and GPS during his countrywide journeys.
"When it comes to a GPS I think there are at least four forces that play together about why people follow a GPS down the wrong path,” he explained. First, Hamman notes that as infants we learn to be compliant to the wishes of others because we depend upon them for our nurturing, food and other life-giving items. This compliance has now spread to our devices. "We are so trained to be compliant to the notifications that we get from our screens. That compliancy mirrors the compliancy we learned in early childhood."
He adds that this compliancy is magnitudes more pronounced in younger people. "Young folks, because they grew up so close with handheld technology, have a deeper trust but there's also a deeper dependency compared to older generations. Research from various other angles totally validates that younger drivers, more inexperienced drivers, will definitely rely on technology more than seasoned drivers. There is no doubt about it."
This explanation resonates with experienced truckers like Joseph Graham who has been driving for nearly 15 years. He cites a lack of 'situational awareness' among less experienced drivers especially those who have always had GPS and never had to use paper maps. "In the process of the technology that has entered the industry, I think we've lost a little bit of our situational awareness that the older caliber of driver still has, but the new drivers haven't had the chance to develop yet to keep them out of trouble zones." Graham, who says he embraces new technologies, still checks for hot tires with his hand and always double checks his Google Maps with map books if he's new to a route.
His experience behind the wheel also tells him not to trust his sensors or fuel gauges 100% of the time. "A fuel gauge is mechanical just like many other devices and can give false readings … When you know your truck and do your trip planning, you pretty much know on the fly how much fuel you have left. By checking your mileage versus just letting the fuel gauge do it, you get the ability to say, 'hey, wait a minute. There's something wrong with this truck. I should've got X amount of miles out of this tank of fuel, and I only got this. Is it because of the train? Was I heavy or was there a problem?’"
Hamman said the second reason why drivers overly trust their screens is that they become preoccupied with the information it's giving. "For instance, if I am engrossed in a play activity, I can be preoccupied with that, [and that's a good thing]. I also can be preoccupied in a moment of creativity while I'm writing or painting, but there's also a kind of preoccupation that inhibits. When people get preoccupied with what happens on a screen, it inhibits that deeper functioning of thought processes you would hope would be there but suddenly it's just not there."
The third reason is "the myth of multitasking … Research shows that only about two and a half percent of the world's population can really multitask. If multitasking would be following a GPS screen carefully while actually observing my environment, looking at the road, at a dock, things like that, I would say about two and a half percent of the world's population can probably do that well. But as people try to multitask, like driving big rig, a car or motorbike while they are focusing in a preoccupied way on the GPS, they absolutely will lose the capacity to take in their environment."
The fourth and last reason is anxiety. "If people are in a new city or area they will be anxious. We know from studies that looking at a screen such as a GPS or phone that our body releases oxytocin and dopamine into our system. Dopamine makes us feel more relaxed. The oxytocin actually instills a sense of trust that here's a connection between me and this device. So I'm anxious because I'm under the clock. I have to make this delivery in a certain time. The more I get anxious, the more I look at the screen, which actually makes me feel more relaxed because dopamine is released into my system just by looking at the screen." He adds: "If you are always under the clock, it's impossible to function optimally. Then the GPS comes in and says, 'I will help you function optimally.'"
What's the answer to overly trusting gadgets?
"Experience," Hamman said. "Technology gives just knowledge. I look at the gauge and it says my tire pressure is fine, but sensors go bad. Learning how to check your tires another way is wisdom … As you mature in being a driver, you get more wise and you probably rely less on technology that only gives you knowledge. That input of data is really important but it's not everything."
Another driver, Bobby, who asked that his real name not be used, embraces truck technology that has proven itself to him. "I trust the tire pressure monitors because they've had a long track record of working correctly for me. Since I installed them a few years ago I haven't had any tire failures at all. I am alerted of a tire leak and I can quickly fix it before the tire blows."
Bobby is an owner-operator with more than 15 years on the road. He says that experience has shown him when to trust sensors. "A lane departure system will give false warnings when the sun is shining on the highway in a certain way. The system sees lines on the pavement and thinks they are line markers. The collision avoidance system uses metal detecting radar and sometimes it picks up guard rails when the truck is pointed in a certain way and will sometimes activate the braking system unnecessarily and unsafely. I always err on the side of caution, but [some sensors] can make it frustrating for the driver."