Bad sense of direction? Five tips for road navigation

Terri Huggins

Millions of Americans have GPS systems in their cars. That hasn't stopped people from getting lost or getting into car crashes, though. In fact, some drivers might be relying too much on the calm, mechanical voice calling out turn-by-turn directions -- and ignoring their own inner compasses.

Follow these five tips to help ensure a safe trip from Point A to Point B.

1. Use a backup.

Christian Dwyer, general manager of MapQuest, says 27 million people continue to print directions despite the advancement of navigation technology.

"It doesn't hurt to have something to check routes against if something seems a little different," he says.

In fact, having a map can help you stay aware of the bigger picture. A couple traveling to Las Vegas drove off a highway and got lost in the wilderness for 48 days beginning March 19, 2011, because they followed a route plotted by their in-car GPS device.

A 2010 study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates reports that many Americans are using backup navigation instead of relying solely on their factory-installed navigation systems. Nearly one-fourth of drivers who have cars with navigation systems also use GPS-equipped smartphones to find their way.

2. Update the system.

Most navigation systems allow map updates four times a year. However, many drivers don't update their devices nearly that often, putting them at great risk of getting lost, following routes they are not equipped to handle and getting into accidents. Visit the website of your GPS device's manufacturer frequently to determine whether updates are available. While some updates are free, you can expect to pay $29 to $99 for updated maps.

GPS.gov, the official U.S. government website for the Global Positioning System, recommends another important update -- for the software that approximates your position and that of your final destination. A good satellite connection and updated maps mean nothing if the software can't tell where you are.

3. Try something new.

Losing satellite connection is a common complaint from GPS users, and one that is unavoidable with traditional GPS devices.

But you can go a different route. For instance, MapQuest offers a free app for Androids and iPhones that works over the Internet and that's updated frequently. Therefore, you can overcome the obstacles of getting stuck in an area without a GPS signal or being unable to start route calculations from a GPS-unfriendly parking garage.

4. Check the settings.

Rich Owings, owner of GPStracklog.com, says many of the problems that drivers encounter with GPS devices are their own fault. They can't seem to customize the device's settings and routes.

"There was a story about a guy who drove off the road in a rural area because of his GPS directions," Owings says. "It turns out he had it set to the shortest route and didn't uncheck 'avoid unpaved roads'."

Typically, checking "shortest distance" on a GPS device is the right option. But if you don't bother to adjust the settings, you could mistakenly wind up on a bumpy dirt road.

5. Use common sense.

Studies show that some drivers put so much trust in GPS devices that they're lulled into a false sense of security. Rather than putting all of your eggs in the GPS basket, pay attention. That means keeping an eye out for road signs and traffic conditions.

Bruce McClary, a motorist from Seattle, recalls one time when his GPS device attempted to steer him in the wrong direction. He entered the location of his intended breakfast destination, and the device quickly plotted the route, telling him to drive straight ahead and make a left on Water Street.

"We were parked at the edge of the upper parking lot, about 100 feet up a very steep cliff above Water Street," McClary says. "Had we followed the instructions, I probably wouldn't be here."

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