GPS is your backup, not brain replacement

Q: Is it considered distracted driving if I hold my phone to use maps? My car GPS is awful!

A: Our brains are shrinking. And GPS is to blame. At least that’s the conclusion of a study on what happens to us when we depend on our GPS to get where we’re headed. You’ve probably heard about some GPS disasters; the tourists who drove into the ocean, the out-of-town conference attendees who drove their car into the Mercer Slough, the woman who followed her GPS to a destination 900 miles from where she was headed.

GPS is amazing, until it isn’t. And when we rely on it without thinking, we’re not so great either. It turns out that the parts of our brain responsible for navigation and planning shut off when we turn on our GPS. When you drive (or walk or ride your bike), your brain keeps track of where you’ve been and develops options for what route to continue on. At least, that’s true when you travel without GPS. Turn your travel decisions over to your GPS, and you’re lost; literally.

If you’re using GPS and it lets you down, you might have no idea where you are or how you got there. Don’t believe me? Ask the people who have ended up in lakes, oceans and different countries. But you didn’t ask if GPS is making us dumber; you wanted to know the law.

If you want to use your phone’s GPS, you’ll need to find a way to do it hands-free. Law prohibits using a personal electronic device while driving, and “use’” has a broad meaning that includes holding the device. Maybe you think that’s too broad a definition but, given all the things you can do with a phone, it’s a lot clearer to write a law that says you can’t hold it than to try to describe all the things you’re not allowed to do while holding it.

That was a problem with our previous law. Washington’s first distracted driving law was passed in 2007; the same year the iPhone came out. It prohibited texting while driving but didn’t anticipate all the other things we’d soon be doing with our phones. You could have written a novel on your phone while driving, as long as you didn’t send it to anyone as a text.

By the time the law went into effect in 2008, it was already obsolete. Rather than try to predict what someone might do with their phone, now or in the future, the law presumes that if you’re holding it, that’s because you’re doing something with it, and whatever it is you’re doing, it’s distracting, including holding your phone up to see your map.

Instead, get a mount for your phone and position it so you can still see the road while glancing at your directions. The law requires us to use GPS hands-free, but it doesn’t require us to turn over our thinking to a robot. To stay engaged, take a look at the turn-by-turn directions for your route before you put your car in drive.

GPS is helpful in getting us to unfamiliar places, but letting our brains shut off while we drive isn’t great. Exercise that brain by learning your route and anticipating your next turn. Let GPS be your backup, not your brain replacement. Otherwise, when the AI robots decide to take over the world, all they’ll have to do is wait until we get in our cars and then tell us what to do.

Doug Dahl writes “The Wise Drive” weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.