U.K. Poll Finds GPS Units Distract, Cause Crashes

NU Online News Service, April 23, 10:45 a.m. EDT

With concerns mounting over the dangers of driver distraction from cell phones and texting, a new British survey is highlighting perils from GPS devices.

Swinton Commercial insurance brokerage in Manchester, England, said a survey of 1,200 van drivers revealed one-in-five had hesitated while on the road as a result of an instruction from their satellite navigations systems.

The firm said one-in-60 also admitted "their Sat Nav had either caused or nearly caused an accident while driving."

In addition to distraction, the firm expressed concern that guidance systems can send truck drivers into locations too small for their vehicles to pass through.

According to Swinton, in 2009, satellite navigation systems were blamed for causing around 300,000 crashes in Britain, while a further 1.5 million admitted performing sudden direction changes because they were following the devices' directions.

The firm said an estimated 14 million U.K. drivers now rely on satellite navigation or GPS units.

In the United States, even as lawmakers focus on cell phone and texting usage bans, the problem "is much bigger and includes lots of things from looking at a GPS screen and changing a radio station to reaching down for your coffee mug and just daydreaming," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

However, Mr. Rader noted that with the exception of cell phones, independent evidence pinpointing specific distractions as an accident cause is lacking. With cellular telephones, he said, call records can be examined after an accident, while for other causes "the evidence we have is what comes from police reports, and you obviously can't always depend on what people tell police officers."

Phil Moss, Swinton commercial vehicle manager, in a statement noted that in the United Kingdom, "we're seeing more van drivers making van insurance claims for damage to their vehicles after following their Sat Navs down unsuitable roads."

The company said it is urging "all commercial vehicle owners to use their common sense when approaching a potentially impassable road."

According to Mr. Moss, the biggest problem for drivers of larger vans and trucks is that GPS units don't always show low-lying bridges.

"Sat Navs can be incredibly useful but it's vital that van drivers exercise caution when listening to instructions and ensure they are stationary when typing in details of their destination," he advised.

Mr. Rader said that recently U.S. laws have been enacted regarding cell phone use when there is "no evidence [the laws are] reducing crashes. In fact, the evidence is that they are not reducing crashes."

Mr. Rader said that while technology is surely part of the problem of driver distraction, it may also eventually be the solution.

"We have automakers really blazing a trail with crash avoidance technology that actually alerts drivers when they are not paying attention on the road," he said, noting that Volvo now has a system that can brake the car if the driver fails to react quickly enough.

In 2000 a U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that had drivers use devices on a test track found that "visual-manual methods are ill-advised while driving" and "all route navigation system destination entry tasks that required visual-manual methods...were associated with disrupted lanekeeping."

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