National

Blindly following GPS sends people into trouble

PORTLAND, Ore. —In a holiday hurry, Jeramie Griffin piled his family into the car and asked his new GPS for the quickest way from his home in the Willamette Valley across the Cascade Range.

It said he could shave 40 minutes off the time of the roundabout route he usually takes to the in-laws' place.

Following the directions, he and his wife headed east on Christmas Eve and into the mountains, turning off a state highway onto local roads and finally getting stuck in the snow.

They had no cell phone service and ran short on formula for their 11-month-old daughter. After taking exploratory hikes, trying to dig out and spending the night in their car, the distraught couple filmed a goodbye video.

Like two other parties of holiday travelers who followed GPS directions smack into Oregon snowbanks, Griffin and family were eventually rescued. But their peril left law enforcement officers and travel advisers perplexed about drivers who occasionally set aside common sense when their GPS systems suggest a shortcut.

"Did everybody just get these for Christmas?" asked Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger, leader of one rescue effort.

In Griffin's case, in fact, the GPS device was a Christmas gift from his parents. He used it for the first time to plan the trip to Central Oregon.

It's one he'd made many times before, following a route travelers have found reliable since at least the days of the Oregon Trail. But, he said, a shortcut the GPS device suggested was attractive.

"We were in such a hurry to get over there, we programmed it in the driveway and went ahead," he said.

The AAA and the National Association for Search and Rescue say they don't sense a surge in trips that go amiss because of a blind reliance on GPS directions, but they hear about them from time to time.

"It's usually about every other month," said Christie Hyde of the national travel association AAA. It's a small number compared with the millions of GPS units in service, she said.

In Oregon, GPS systems can direct drivers to thousands of miles of Forest Service logging roads that lace the state's mountain ranges. In the winter, they are often plugged with snow.

On Christmas Day, a Nevada couple took one such road in Evinger's county and spent three days stuck. They were rescued when a break in atmospheric conditions allowed them to signal their coordinates to 911.

Three Portlanders and their small dog got into trouble Monday when their vehicle slid off a forest road as they were using GPS directions to a hot springs in the southern Willamette Valley. Lane County officials said the three and the dog were exhausted and mildly hypothermic after walking 17 miles without survival gear to get into cell phone range and call 911.

Griffin's family was rescued when friends and relatives used a GPS like Griffin's and duplicated the route they assumed the family had plotted. That led them straight to the family. The three had been stuck about 24 hours.

The most common advice was high in "duh" content:

"You can't follow GPS blindly," said Hyde of the national AAA.

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