Death by GPS

Ever been misled by your GPS?

For some, a GPS fiasco is simply an annoyance but in other cases, it can be a lot more serious.

Search, and rescue teams call it Death by GPS. It happens when a well-meaning driver follows poor directions from a GPS device and ends up in serious trouble. Despite the grisly name, not every victim dies from following bad directions from their GPS. But the name is a reminder of how high the stakes can be when you trust technology more than your own eyes and instincts. Here are some tragic stories from people who trusted their GPS more than their own commonsense.

Driving a major highway in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

GPS blamed in RVer’s death

An Indiana couple, Ronnie and Bev Barker went missing along with their motorhome on a trip from Oregon to Arizona. The couple were lost and stranded in the desert hills of Nevada. As more details come into focus regarding the Barker’s tragic final trip together, it became clear the couple’s GPS is taking some of the blame for the tragic outcome.

When searchers found the Barker’s motorhome on April 6, 2022, it was abandoned, stuck in the sand on a desert road. The family’s toad car, a Kia, was gone, presumably used by the couple after the motorhome got stuck. Searchers then worked on following the intermittent tracks left on the dusty roadway. After a couple of hours, they heard a car horn. It was signaling out “SOS.” The Barkers were found.

Burr Trail in Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beverly Barker was sitting in the front seat of the Kia following some of the last instructions her husband, Ronnie, had given. With their cell phones out of range he had told her to keep tooting the horn. Three short, three long, three short. Repeat.

Bev Barker was airlifted to a Reno hospital and was able to physically recover in a fairly short time. She was able to speak to the details of their disastrous trip. On March 27, they had been heading south out of Coaldale, Nevada, a small community on U.S. Highway 95. Their motorhome’s GPS was their guidance system and neither Ronnie nor Bev had any qualms about following the instructions it gave. One post by a family member suggests that a setting on the GPS allowed for off-highway direction. His feeling was this was where the problem really set in.

Country road in Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Barkers continued on, following the GPS’ directions. After her rescue, Bev Barker commented that the couple had seen other vehicles including at least one motorhome and so felt comfortable with where they were headed. That is, apparently, until the motorhome got stranded in sand that night. With no cell service, Ronnie and Bev decided their best course of action was to get up the next morning disconnect the toad car and use it to go find help to get the motorhome freed from the sand.

The next morning, March 28 they got into the Kia and headed off down the road in what they hoped was the direction that would get them help. Instead, just about two miles from the motorhome their toad car, too, got stuck in sand—and they were still out of cell phone range.

What followed were several agonizing days. Neither Ronnie nor Bev was in particularly good health. Ronnie was a cancer survivor and both he and Bev were diabetics and Bev is limited to the use of a wheelchair or walker. They hadn’t thought to take blankets or food or water with them when they left the motorhome. With temperatures in the 20s by night it didn’t take long for Ronnie to fall seriously ill. Partly due to dehydration he finally passed away just two days before rescuers heard Bev’s repeated SOS horn toots and found the couple still together in their Kia.

Driving the Piano Bridge in central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina man dead after following GPS to defunct bridge

The Hickory Bridge had been inoperative for about nine years and any barricades had been washed away. A North Carolina man is dead after his GPS led him to the defunct bridge that dropped off into a creek on September 30, 2022.

Phillip Paxson, a 47-year-old father of two girls had been driving his Jeep at night from his oldest daughter’s birthday party in Hickory when his GPS led him to a bridge that has been inoperative since heavy flooding in July 2013 destroyed it.

Driving a covered bridge in Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“It was a dark and rainy night and he was following his GPS which led him down a concrete road to a bridge that dropped off into a river,” Paxson’s mother-in-law, Linda McPhee Koenig said in a Facebook post. “The bridge had been destroyed (nine) years ago and never repaired. It lacked any barriers or warning signs to prevent the death of a 47 year old father of two daughters. He will be greatly missed by his family and friends. It was a totally preventable accident. We are grieving his death.”

Authorities with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol responded to reports of an overturned vehicle in a creek near 24th Street Place Northeast—a private road—in Catawba County, according to WCNC.

Old train depot in Fort Langley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

GPS blamed for sending driver onto train tracks

Occupants were able to get out and train slowed down before train hit.

Stuck on the tracks with the train coming—it’s a hackneyed Hollywood cliffhanger but a scene that a driver and his passenger lived through in Walnut Grove, British Columbia in January 2022.

According to the report from the Township of Langley Fire Department, it was just before 8 p.m. The driver was following the directions from the GPS which apparently steered him down the railway tracks instead of the 96th Avenue roadway near 217 A Street. The car became stuck on the tracks.

The driver and one passenger tried to push the vehicle off the tracks. Then, as a train approached tried flagging down the engineer. They were seen, but not in time.

Fort Langley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The train operator tried slowing the train but there wasn’t enough track,” said Assistant Fire Chief Andy Hewitson. Both of the vehicle occupants were able to get clear of the collision. The train hit the car at slow speed and pushed it for almost the length of a soccer field before getting fully stopped.

In deference to the car’s driver, Hewitson noted it was dark and 96th Avenue and the railway right-of-way intersect at an odd angle at that location. A lagging GPS could obviously create issues, he noted.

“Technology is great but it might not always give you the right directions,” said Hewitson.

Nobody was injured although the early model vehicle will likely be a write-off, he said.

Driving a rural road in the Midwest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to avoid becoming a victim of “Death by GPS”

These Death by GPS stories are terrible but hopefully will help raise awareness around this issue. The advice for avoiding Death by GPS is simple: Trust your gut. If a road seems unsafe, go back. Search and rescue teams also recommend having paper maps that clearly mark passable and maintained roads. GPS directions are helpful to have but traditional paper maps might help save your life.

Most death-by-GPS incidents do not involve actual deaths—or even serious injuries. They are accidents or accidental journeys brought about by an uncritical acceptance of turn-by-turn commands: the Japanese tourists in Australia who drove their car into the ocean while attempting to reach North Stradbroke Island from the mainland; the man who drove his BMW down a narrow path in a village in Yorkshire, England, and nearly over a cliff; the woman in Bellevue, Washington, who drove her car into a lake that their GPS said was a road; the Swedish couple who asked GPS to guide them to the Mediterranean island of Capri but instead arrived at the Italian industrial town of Carpi; the elderly woman in Belgium who tried to use GPS to guide her to her home, 90 miles away but instead drove hundreds of miles to Zagreb only realizing her mistake when she noticed the street signs were in Croatian.

Driving secondary road in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These types of mishaps often elicit sheer bafflement. The local Italian tourist official noted that although “Capri is an island,” the unfortunate Swedes “did not even wonder why they didn’t cross any bridge or take any boat;” the first responders in Bellevue were amazed that the women “wouldn’t question driving into a puddle that doesn’t seem to end.”

 For their part, the victims often couch their experiences in language that attributes to GPS a peculiar sort of agency. GPS “told us we could drive down there,” one of the Japanese tourists explained. “It kept saying it would navigate us a road.” The BMW driver echoed these words, almost verbatim: “It kept insisting the path was a road.”

Driving a country lane in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something is happening to us. Anyone who has driven a car through an unfamiliar place can attest to how easy it is to let GPS do all the work. We have come to depend on GPS, a technology that, in theory, makes it impossible to get lost. Not only are we still getting lost we may actually be losing a part of ourselves.

Worth Pondering…