Three weeks ago, I was contacted by a writer for iPass who was working on an article about the accuracy of driving directions on online mapping sites. I provided some pithy comments. Her article is now online and to my surprise I’m quoted all over the place. (I wasn’t expecting that; I should have been more explicit that I am no expert.) What follows is my e-mail to the writer, so you can compare it with the finished product; I essentially gave my take on errors and driving directions, based on all the stories I’ve seen lately.
I don’t think online maps are inherently more or less error-prone than paper maps. No mapping method has a monopoly on accuracy — or error.
Directions are something else. If you’re using a paper map to figure out a route in an area you’re not familiar with, you study the map and make your best guess based on what information you have. You’ll probably stick to major arteries rather than try to work your way via back roads. Locals might know which back road or side street is a short cut; you don’t. So you play it safe and pick the obvious route.
The problem with online directions is that we put too much faith in them. We expect them to have that local intelligence: which side streets are better, where the construction sites are, that kind of thing. And, though I don’t know what algorithms the mapping providers use — I’d be fascinated to find out, actually — I don’t think they’re that smart. Software isn’t perfect, and mistakes happen. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the directions are as accurate as they are as often as they are.
Every so often, you hear about a glitch: someone posts a link to some directions that take them in a crazy loop in every direction but straight — kind of like Billy in “The Family Circus” — which is funny, until you hear about someone who actually follows those directions. There’s been a rash of news stories, for example, about someone blithely following directions while ignoring their surroundings or warning signs — like truckers getting stuck in narrow lanes, or people driving their cars straight into rivers.
They’re tools: useful, but you shouldn’t trust them implicitly. They’re no substitute for carefully reading the map (whether it’s digital or paper), paying attention to road signs, and generally using your common sense.
In other words, don’t check your brain when you get behind the wheel.
If I’m off-base, I’d love to hear about it.