THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Your GPS: What to Do When No One Has a Clue

Are smart tools making us stupid? While our iPhones and BlackBerrys play well with others and (mostly) do what they're designed to do, at least one wonder tool is turning out to be the Chuckie of the techno-world: The GPS.

Forget the old "Sorry I'm late -- I got lost!" or "Who can read a map in the dark in the rain?" and just go to the real reason: "The GPS made me do it."

Ask the tractor-trailer driver who drove his rig onto Westchester County, New York's Hutchinson River Parkway -- despite the "Passenger Cars Only" sign -- because the GPS told him to. He hit a 9' overpass that sheared off the top of his truck, dumping tons of onions onto the road and bringing the morning rush to a tearful halt.

Or ask Jose Silva, who said he "did what he was told" by his GPS and turned his car onto the Metro-North Railroad train tracks in Bedford Hills, New York, where it got stuck. He watched from a safe distance as the commuter train crushed his car flat.

Fortunately, the woman who was zipping along the interstate at 70 miles per hour, late for a speaking engagement, didn't jam on the brakes when her GPS cheerily announced "you have reached your destination." But it does raise the question: Is our trust in technology misplaced?

We've become so dependent on the GPS that some of us won't back out of our own driveway without its help finding the street at the end.

How can you tell whether your GPS has your best interests at heart? Just because its voice is calm and authoritative -- and doesn't rise at the end of a sentence into a question mark -- should you just close your eyes and go along for the ride?

SITUATION: Whose fault is it if you drive the wrong way down a one-way street because your GPS told you to? Can you sue Garmin when you get a ticket?

"It's your responsibility, not Garmin's. GPS mapping databases always contain errors. Drivers are expected to know this and to observe what appears through the windshield of the vehicle. What you see on the road must always take precedence over your GPS (or a friend on a cell phone reciting directions from www.maps.google.com. Excessive reliance on your GPS is dangerous and will not provide a legal defense to driving which violates the law," says Attorney Lori Finsterwald of Schillinger & Finsterwald, LLP.

SITUATION: Is your GPS a fun way to learn a foreign language? Should you set it to give directions in something other than English so the whole family can learn some useful words and phrases?

"The French woman's voice on my GPS is so seductive that I find myself looking for excuses to 'go out for a ride together.' I do adore her," says David Ward, Publisher of MUZZY, the BBC Language Course for Children (www.early-advantage.com). "When I took the family on a driving trip in Canada, we set the GPS on our rental car to speak French, too -- this time so we could feel more a part of Canada. You certainly do get the flavor of the language, and pick up some crucial vocabulary, each time she yells 'arête! arête!' [stop] Just change the language setting on your GPS often enough and you can learn how to say 'recalculating' in six languages!"

And here's where we invite your response because no one's been able to answer this question definitively, yet:

SITUATION: What does it mean when you program your GPS with a British male voice (and name him Spencer) but your partner has a GPS with an American female voice -- and no name at all?