Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When Will We Stop Blaming the Driver?

I have been associated with the geospatial technology since 1985. I believe in the technology and its vast potential. However, I have become increasingly disappointed with what appears to be growing trend - within the blogosphere at least - to instinctively blame a driver whenever he or she gets lost or injured using a satnav device. I first noticed this trend when a couple got stuck on a logging road in Oregon in wintertime. A number of blog posts suggested that the couple should have known that their GPS device was imperfect and brought a map along as back-up. I said at the time that expecting a consumer to bring a map because their GPS device might fail is like expecting me to throw my bike in the trunk of my car when I go for a drive because the car might break down. Consumers expect that products they purchase will work. (So do jurors!) Particularly when commercials repeatedly tell them they should buy the device because it will get them to where they want to go quicker, safer and cheaper.

The issue arose again this week as a man drowned in Spain reportedly because his satnav device mistakenly took him down a road at night that led into a lake and he was not able to stop quick enough. I have seen more than a few comments suggesting that the driver lacked "common sense". However, there is nothing in the reports that I read that suggested the driver lacked common sense in this instance. Moreover, who of us hasn't taken the wrong turn and driven for a while trying to figure out whether they made a mistake (or how to fix it)? In addition, I know that the reaction time of my parents, who are both in the early 70's, is slower than it used to be - particularly when a lake suddenly appears in the middle of the road!! My guess is that they are not alone.

I don't think it is fair to instinctively blame the driver in an accident due at least in part to an error or malfunction in a satnav device. More importantly, I also believe it is bad business. If a customer is injured due to an error in a satnav device, a better response - from both a legal and business standpoint - would be to try and understand what went wrong and identify ways to make the product better and safer. History has shown that the companies that take this approach are better off in the long run.


Rick said...

Hi Kevin - While it might be a good business or marketing practice to pay more attention to these errors for product improvement purposes, I disagree with your suggestion that the satnav device is even partially to blame for these kinds of accidents.

Pilots are forced by training and prudence to recognize that stuff fails, even if perfectly designed and built and used for the intended purpose. Flying into terrain because a satnav device or altimeter failed is pilot error. Even though these aids for flight are depended upon, they don't absolve the PIC of the responsibility to fly the plane. I think it's similar with auto operators.

Anyone driving off a bridge or getting lost and suffering injury/harm due to satnav failure or poor satnav precision shouldn't be operating an auto.

And no, I don't carry a bike in case the vehicle breaks down. But I do routinely carry a spare in case of tire failure. And particularly in hostile environments (desert, mountain or frigid), I carry provisions (water, warm coat, etc.) in case of breakdown.

Most auto's have windows all around. If you run into/off of something because you're looking at the GPS screen, shame on you. The windows are there for a reason. If someone can't bother to look out the window, not drive beyond their headlights, and pay attention to their surroundings, maybe they should consider a cab.

One of the reasons general aviation aircraft are so outrageously expensive is because the legal system allows/enables lawsuits against equipment manufacturers for unreasonable expectations of perfection. Stuff breaks, wears out and is often used for other than the intended purpose. I'd rather assign some personal responsibility to the user/operator than bear the cost associated with requiring equipment to be perfect and designed in such a way that it can't be used for other than its intended purpose.


Kevin said...


I see your point, but it is my understanding that pilots get hours and hours of training before they are certified. My son received his driver's license a few months ago - I am quite sure that the training was much less than the average pilot. And I know that it did not include anything about the possible defects that could arise in a satnav device.

Brian said...

I find myself leaning more towards Kevin's position on this one. Not because I think that individuals using a satnav are blameless in situations like those he mentioned but because I think that he makes a good point that a lot of media is too hard on the driver, ignoring the role the device played. For example, I (obviously) agree with Rick that you should be looking out your window and not staring at a satnav, and if you crash into a dam (where no dam should be according to the satnav) the driver is still the primary party at fault. But I don't agree with the categorical, I would say almost hyperbolic, "Anyone driving off a bridge or getting lost and suffering injury/harm due to satnav failure or poor satnav precision shouldn't be operating an auto." That's where I side with Kevin. I think the valid points Rick made were unfortunately undercut by the, in my opinion, over the top dismissal of the role of devices failing in ways that consumers reasonably expect them not to fail. I appreciate your comment Rick, I just respectfully disagree and think a less dismissive view of the tech failure would be helpful overall.

Kevin said...

Another point worth considering is that the few cases involving the potential liability of mapmakers relate to aeronautical charts. These include Zinn v. State 112 Wis 2nd 417, 334, N.W. 2nd 67 (1983);Reminga v. U.S. 448 F. Supp 45 (W.D. Mich. 1978);Brocklesby v. U.S. 767 F.2d 1288 (9th Cir. 1985);Aetna Casualty and Surety Co. v. Jeppesen 642 F.2d 339(9th Cir. 1981); TimesMirror Company v. Sisk, 122 Ariz. 174,593 P.2d 924 (Ct App. 1979); Saloomey v. Jeppesen & Co., 707 F.2d 671 (2d Cir. 1983); In Re: Korean Air Line Distributor of September 1, 1983, 597 F.Supp 619 (DDC 1984);Fluor Corporation v. Jeppesen & Co., 170 Cal.App.3d 468 (1985)