GPS Nav Systems Safer Than Smart Phones

Some suggest that if we ban cell phones in the drivers seat, then why not ban global positioning system (GPS) nav systems as well.

They suggest that paying attention to ANY electronic device detracts from attention paid to the road equally.  However, the two instruments serve very different purposes; one purpose more helpful to the actual act of piloting a car than the other.  Indeed, we do not ban GPS units because they constitute a less disruptive aid to drivers than does the smart phones and cell phones in general, particularly, during driving.  In terms of distracted driving, GPS units are less disruptive, more “in tune” with what the driver needs while he’s driving, and thus, safer to use while operating a motorized vehicle, than gabbing on a smart phone either via voice, or texting, which likely has no relevance at all to the driving task at hand.

Benefits and Advantages of GPS Navigation Systems over Smart Phones

GPS navigation devices less demanding.  First, GPS devices require less of the driver’s attention.  Once you program your destination into them, they generally require no further adjustment.  They call out the directions clearly (usually), and the announcements are timed to occur well before the driver is required to merge, exit, or turn. Also, the speech that GPS units generate is typically clearer and more legible than cell phone chatter, and what’s more is that there’s much less of it except during those times when you’re driving in the close quarters of a city.  Then they can be a bit monotonous.

Less social pressure to converse.  But unlike a conversation with a real person, the driver is not mandated to pay them lots of attention.  With people, there is social pressure to respond promptly during conversations, and when you do not, your partner in conversation might become irritated.  After all, with an audible GPS unit in the car, the driver need not look away (or as far away) from the road as much as he would if he was using a paper map.  The GPS display is much simpler than most maps and would seem to require of the driver less concentration for navigational purposes than a map.

Require less interaction and attention.  Within the city, GPS units are admittedly more intrusive than they are on highways and strait-shot pathways. But even in the city, it’s hard to imagine them being AS intrusive as an ongoing cell phone conversation that requires listening as well as thinking up responses; particular when they’re providing up-to-the-minute information that you need while navigating those narrow and busy city streets. In the GPS case, all you have to do is listen to it chatter for several seconds here and there. With the plethora of road-ready apps available on the iPhone et al, the potential to lure drivers’ eyes from the road is likely no less than a GPS.

GPS units better suited to be operated by automobile drivers.  Further, unlike most cell phones that tend to be very compact, GPS units are specifically designed ergonomically for drivers so that they’re as minimally obtrusive as practical.  Indeed, they’re meant to be used by drivers. Many units even provide timely information on traffic and construction conditions that enable drivers to avoid congested areas as well as the risks of driving in said places.

GPS units provide more relevant information to the driver than most smart phone conversations.  Though the GPS technology is less mature than cell phones, and thus hasn’t been studied as much, whatever increased danger to drivers there is, that’s due to paying attention to the GPS unit instead of the road, is more than offset by the improved safety they bestow. They provide weather and traffic advisories and warnings, that enable drivers to steer clear of congested or flooded routes.  They can suggest more efficient routes for reaching point B from point A.  In general, map devices show the best ways to get to your destination, and then, once you understand what they’re telling you, they get out of your way, and allow you to get back to paying full attention to the road.  Generally not so though, with a smart phone, conversations on which often have nothing to do with making driving safer.

Operation is more naturally hands free than cell phones.   With a GPS, you generally perform all the manual, attention demanding operations, before your driving trip begins.  Then once on the road, the unit simply spouts out driving directions audibly.  Barring errors in its internal maps, GPS systems generally require no more handling until you reach your destination.

GPS devices lower accident incident rates.  As far as map usage goes, a GPS unit may in fact reduce accident rates because it conveys its information to driver more efficiently by taking much of the guess work out of where to go, as noted earlier. So because of the more tightly focused and useful niche role of electronic GPS units in the car’s cockpit, they can’t be legitimately likened to cell phones in terms of how distracting they are.  Indeed, GPS units as described, are far less dangerous than cell phones.

GPS usage and how closely it mirrors the cell phone in the degree of distraction it creates, is not in the same class of activities as distracted driving via a cell phone.  While the GPS is specifically designed to aid the driver, smart phones are significantly less so. Su by all means, break out the GPS system if you must while driving, but also by all means, put away that confounded cell phone !

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Revision History

  • 2015-12-05: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2014-12-25: Originally published this piece.