Satellite Navigation: friend or foe?


Is satellite navigation a help or a hindrance to truck drivers and the wider driving community as a whole?

In this article Bob Beech, truck driver and journalist with over 40 years’ experience behind the wheel gives us his view.

For many drivers, using satellite navigation systems to guide them has become virtually second nature. The technology has improved dramatically in recent years, and many would struggle without it.

It is very much a good thing, but it can cause problems when drivers follow the system's instructions without question, getting stuck in a dead-end lane with a car or van can be both inconvenient and a little unnerving for some people.                  

But getting into a similar predicament with a heavy truck will often be a lot more serious, often very expensive and in some instances dangerous. While everyone makes mistakes, I do find it difficult to understand just how some drivers get themselves into such a predicament. 

Apart from getting lost, other trends have emerged in the last decade or so, which have an adverse effect on driver behaviour. Failure to observe the road, inability to use mirrors combined with a general lack of awareness of their surroundings or little attention being paid to other road users. All too often drivers seem to be distracted, and it appears that an over-reliance upon navigation systems and mobile devices are often at the root of these problems.

This combination of bad driver behaviour often translates into sudden lane changes, taking motorway exits at the last moment, poor road positioning at junctions and roundabouts and many other thoughtless actions that inconvenience and sometimes endanger others. Often the cause is paying too much attention to the instructions given by the sat nav and not enough concentration on the actual business of driving.                

Firstly, let me establish my credentials on the use of sat nav systems. I don’t actually own one, but do have Google Maps on my mobile phone, and I do drive an increasing number of heavy vehicles that have inbuilt systems, which I make use of when required.

I also have a decent UK road atlas, marked with most bridge heights and a large hold-all full of regional street guides and other maps for both the UK and Europe. It weighs about 35 kg and sits in the boot of my car most of the time. I only take the maps that I think I will need, invariably the maps I actually require are still in the car boot when I need them, but a mixture of experience, checking the route beforehand and using the phone app works well enough.

In other words, over the last 40 years or so, I have got lost countless times, but have always managed to get unlost without causing too much chaos and destruction!        

One advantage is that I grew up in a family transport business and used to go off in the trucks with my father and other drivers from a young age. As a truck-obsessed youngster, I paid close attention to where we were heading, and trucks in the 60’s and 70’s were a good deal slower than today.

As a result, I quickly understood which way to head from our South Wales base to reach a multitude of locations. Starting from Cardiff, Swansea and Carmarthen, heading West towards Newport, Gloucester and ultimately London to the East and so on. In simple terms, West meant turning left from the yard, East was to the right, and after a while, it was evident that more distant locations invariably involved covering some of the same ground and then going a bit further. Sadly, few young drivers now have this early introduction to truck driving and route finding as modern rules and regulations prevent them from going to work with family members at weekends and during school holidays.                   

Many years of experience does not necessarily mean that you become faultless in any job, it just gives you plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, but the real trick is to learn from the mistakes and hopefully try not to repeat them too often.

Some fortunate individuals seem to have a natural sense of direction; others have to work a bit harder to develop the skills required to find their way around. Now we appear to have a growing number of drivers who have very little idea where they are and invariably have no idea which direction to head if the navigation system malfunctions. To understand basic navigation requires three core skills, understanding where the four points of the compass lie, where you are in relation to these points, and which direction you need to head to reach your destination.                  

Unfortunately, continued reliance upon navigation systems, combined with a failure to observe your surroundings often results in some drivers having no real sense of direction. Quite often I speak to other truck drivers and ask either where they have been or where are they heading, to be met with the response: “I don’t know, I just follow the sat nav.”               

I am aware that this might well be a generational issue and I might be considered a geriatric technophobe, but finding your way from place to place always used to be a core skill for truck drivers. I find most of the modern systems to be a handy guide, but would never rely on them 100%, always preferring to check the route on a decent map if venturing into unfamiliar territory.

The navigation system is useful for checking the exact location of your destination, particularly in major cities, but just following the instruction blindly can be a risky decision in some countries. Road closures, changes to the road layout, or something as simple as badly parked vehicles can completely alter access to some premises. Checking the physical layout of the road network on a phone app is often very helpful, but the postcode given to a driver does not always correspond to the exact delivery point. Large factories and distribution centres might have multiple access points, and the postcode may well refer to the main entrance to the office block, ideal for company cars, not so good for a 44-tonne truck.             

Many of the well-publicised navigation errors occur in rural areas, blindly following the device's instructions down a maze of country lanes is not a good idea, checking where you are heading on a decent map often gives vital information about what lies ahead. Other actions like getting out and asking locals can be invaluable, even knocking on doors to ask for advice, other techniques like looking for truck tyre marks on the road surface at junctions and turnings are useful clues.

Making a note of potential turning places is good insurance in country areas and most importantly stopping and walking to have a look at the route rather than just blindly driving along a twisting lane that is getting progressively narrower. It seems as if some of the biggest errors are committed when a driver goes into a blind panic and only listens to the electronic voice giving instructions, rather than relying on their common sense.                  

Investing in a decent road atlas and consulting it regularly, even just to find out where different places are located is probably the best advice, a country’s basic geography is unlikely to change a great deal.  I still quite enjoy tracing out a route, particularly on a long continental journey, to see which is the most suitable route and sometimes making a note of the road numbers that I have to follow. I also find myself thinking back at the end of a journey to see how much I remember, probably as a means of subconsciously checking that I am not quite senile just yet!

We've heard from Bob now tell us what you think. Do you agree that common sense, prior route planning and a good road atlas are key or is your sat nav a crucial piece of equipment that you couldn't live without? Post your comments below.

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