Friday, February 4, 2011

"'Death by GPS' in desert"

I've written about the unintended downside of relying too heavily on GPS, mobile telephones, and similar locational technologies in two earlier posts, the first about simply getting lost and the second describing several ways people visiting U.S. national parks have managed to get themselves into trouble using these devices.

This article by Tom Knudsen, published in The Sacramento Bee (Jan 30, 2011) describes the grim stories of people who have died in Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park after they entered these rugged areas unprepared for 120 degree (F) temperatures and wound up on impassable roads.
These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death.
According to Charlie Callagan, Death Valley wilderness coordinator, "Some of the databases on the GPS units are showing old roads that haven't been open in 40 years." He's been "working with technology companies to remove closed and hazardous roads from their navigation databases – but with only partial success."

There has been a huge increase in summertime visitors to Death Valley, "from 97,000 in 1985 to 257,500 in 2009," an increase of 165%. It would be interesting to know the causes of the increase and whether locational technologies have played a large role. There's no way to tell from the article whether the per-visitor death rate has increased proportional to, slower than, or faster than the rate of increase in visitors. Whatever the case, clearly the providers of GPS services have a heavy responsibility to make their devices safer, at least by removing abandoned roads in dangerous areas, perhaps by removing places like Death Valley from their systems entirely.

Thanks to Don Searing for bringing this article to my attention.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

No comments: