It was easy to make jokes last summer when reports surfaced that Google Maps and other navigation systems were wrongly directing people off of Interstate 80 and rerouting drivers through Colorado.
Sure, it added eight hours to a trip, but it wasn’t necessarily dangerous.
But seven months later, it’s still happening. And in the winter months, it could be deadly.
The problem is these navigation apps continue to send the wrong information primarily on or around Interstate 80 in southcentral Wyoming. The Rock Springs area seems to be the hot spot.
On one day last month, the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office rescued nine people who got stuck on unmaintained seasonal dirt roads.
The drivers didn’t intentionally seek them out, they were guided there, said Jason Mower, Sweetwater County’s public affairs director.
“Each was mistakenly misled to the same remote patchwork of untrodden tertiary and quaternary roads thanks to their in-car GPS navigation systems,” Mower said. “All of them were marooned by modern technology.”
It’s happening in Carbon County too. It got so bad that the county had to close roads, build fences and make signs that say, “Your GPS is wrong. This road is closed!!”
But on Dec. 13, it got particularly hairy.
Early that day, a family of three from Wisconsin was trying to get to Rock Springs from Casper when their SUV’s navigation system put them on an unmaintained road in the Red Desert during a blizzard.
“They were 40 miles north of the Interstate between Rock Springs and Rawlins — in the middle of nowhere,” Mower told Cowboy State Daily.
Thankfully there was cell service — which is no guarantee in some parts of Wyoming — so the family was able to call emergency services.
They didn’t know where they were exactly, so the sheriff’s office assembled its search-and-rescue team and headed out in the sub-zero weather.
By the time they found the family, the SUV was covered in a foot of snow more than 90 miles from Rock Springs.
The rescue vehicles picked up six more people stranded along the way and didn’t get back into Rock Springs until past midnight.
“They were all either new to the area or from out of state and were mistakenly diverted by their vehicle navigation system to the same road,” Mower said.
Thankfully, the sheriff’s office has an experienced search-and-rescue team that was able to go out and save the stranded motorists in whiteout conditions and sub-zero temperatures.
But what if it keeps happening?
Can’t Someone Fix It?
The Wyoming Department of Transportation said its geographic information system unit is in talks with Google and other navigation companies to remedy the issue.
“All the companies WYDOT’s GIS program has worked with so far are willing to work with us to fix the issue, and the teamwork is much appreciated,” WYDOT spokesperson Jordan Achs told Cowboy State Daily.
Mower was more specific. He said his conversations with WYDOT revealed that the agency is “finalizing negotiations with major navigation providers to feed their official mapping data into those vehicle GPS navigation systems.”
Neither WYDOT nor Mower could provide dates where an electronic partnership could happen, but Mower said there are ways, which were realized last month, that they can be proactive in warning motorists.
Mower said the sheriff’s office issued a transit alert on its own social media accounts.
He said he acknowledges that most out-of-state drivers wouldn’t be following those accounts, but it was a good first step.
The next step was more important. Working with WYDOT, they were able to create and issue customized messages on the agency’s electronic bulletin boards along interstates.
All with the same message: Don’t believe your GPS.
Two, Three, Four More Months Of Winter
Since Dec. 13, there hasn’t been a repeat performance. There have been isolated incidents, but nothing of that magnitude.
Although the calendar says there are only two more months of winter ahead, any Wyomingite knows better. There’s at least three more months, which could extend into four more months.
Until then, Achs says it’s best to pay attention to WYDOT’s road and travel page, app and social media accounts.
And if a navigation app takes a driver to a county or service road, don’t go, she said. Instead, call the county or WYDOT to get up-to-date road information.
And it’s always good to use common sense, Mower said.
“If the conditions are bad like a whiteout and Siri or Alexa is advising you go on a dirt road, you should probably think twice about it,” he said.