Friday, October 1, 2010

The Long Way Home

A recent article in the New York Times ran a story about a 45-year-old Bavarian man who followed the directions of his GPS device onto the wrong end of a highway off-ramp near the town of Onsabruck and straight into an oncoming car, injuring an 11-year-old boy. A local newpaper called accident of "blind trust" in the gadget.

What an idiot.

Yes, but I say so not without some understanding of the situation. See, I have driven with a Tom Tom now for four months, and while I've never let the thing lead me the wrong way onto a highway, I can see how people can become mezmerized by the things.

I had mixed feelings about the purchase. One was cost (I'm cheap). The second was pride (I'm a cabbie, dammit). As the cost of the things has dropped, however, I can't really say I can't afford one. And because there are vast swaths of Dorchester, Roslindale, West Roxbury and Roxbury that I do not know by heart, I have to admit there are times it would come in handy.

I would say about half half the cabbies today use a GPS, mostly newer drivers like myself. The old guys rely on memory or use street guides to look find obscure addresses. These compact books simply list street names alphabetically followed by the streets they intersect. Once you hit a street you know, you can construct a route to the destination. Easy, provided you know the major arteries in the city.

Ninety-five percent of the jobs I get are straightforward: airport to hotel, hotel to tourist attraction, tourist attraction to restaurant, restaurant to nightclub, nightclub to hospital... you get the picture. But then someone gets into your cab and says they need to go to 10 Shirley Street in Roxbury.

"Excuse me a minute while I look that up."

For the next four minutes you're fumbling in the dark trying to read the tiny print on the atlas or street guide while your fare is sitting impatiently in the back. Not good, espcecially if you expect a tip.

With a GPS, you just plug in the address and go. Passengers tend to be reassured by a GPS system. Most think a GPS won't get lost or rip them off.

True, a GPS won't rip you off intentionally, but they are far from perfect. I knew this even before I bought my own. A lot of people have Iphones nowadays. These have built-in GPS. A lot of people with these will get in my cab and offer to look up the directions to where they are going go on their phone. In general, it's helpful.

One time, however, a lady got in the cab with her Iphone. She insisted I follow the directions it gave to and address in Watertown. I complied. The route the device picked was not the most direct, and I knew we were in trouble when it told me to go up Belmont Avenue but she insisted we press on. We ended up on a dead-end street near Belmont Cemetery. I then took her to her destination, but the experiment cost her another $8 or $9.

Part of the problem is Boston itself. There are umpteen different ways to get from one place to another, and deciding which one is best is sometimes a relative thing, depending on the traffic, road construction, time of day and, yes, personal preference. Another problem are the settings of the device. You can program it to calculate the shortest route, the fastest route, to avoid highways or toll roads. And, once a route is calculated, you can then request alterations to the route. The devices are, in a way, handicapped from the very start.

With my Tom Tom, I sometimes plug in the address even if know where it is, just to see how directs me. For a trip from the Harvard Business School to the Boston Common, it told me to drive through back streets in Allson and then down Commonwealth Ave. rather than the much easier, faster and more direct Storrow Drive. In some cases, I've the GPS will tell me to take the next right, then the next right, then the next right and then the next right. Yup, right around the block. If I followed those directions, I likely not only would get an earful from the passenger but a call from the Hackney Bureau.

Some passengers will ask that I use the GPS, then marvel at the convoluted directions it spits out. "Take whichever way you think is best," they then say.

Don't get me wrong, a GPS will get you to your destination--eventually. The way I've come to use the device is to calculate the route, then work backwards: figuring out the neighborhood of the address, then figuring out my own way there, letting the machine recalculate the directions constantly, until I'm very close. Then I might follow its recommendations.

Which brings me to the man in Germany. Even though I don't rely on my Tom Tom, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the goddamn thing. Of course, I should be looking the road, watching for cars, trucks, pedestrians, bicycle messengers, stalled vehicles, stray animals, UFOs, whatever. That little screen hypnotizes you, makes you suddenly unaware of what's really going on around you. And so I can understand how the guy mindlessly pulled onto the off-ramp.

Dumb, yes. But understandable.