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GPS devices can get lost too

June 27, 2013 at 7:16 AM ET

Video: What was supposed to be a day trip into California’s Death Valley for Donna Cooper, her daughter, and a friend turned into a nightmare when their GPS’s faulty directions got them lost in 128-degree weather. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

GPS (global positioning system) devices now make it easy for travelers to navigate the nation’s highways and city streets.

But on this summer’s road trip remember that while the technology can get you where you’re going, it can also lead you astray.

It’s not uncommon to get sent off course by a GPS device: a Harris Interactive study found that while 30% of adults now use some sort of GPS unit, 63% of GPS users have been misdirected at least once by their device.

Misdirection could be as simple as a route more roundabout than necessary. But bad directions can have serious consequences.

As NBC’s Tom Costello reported on TODAY Thursday, one GPS unit directed a woman with two kids in her car onto railroad tracks near Boston. They scrambled out just before a train rammed the car. In California’s Death Valley, a GPS device sent Donna Cooper, her daughter and a friend in search of roads that no longer existed. They were stranded for three days, in 128-degree weather, before being rescued.

"We just kept getting further and further and further into Death Valley,” Cooper told Costello.

The reasons for this happening are as simple as the consequences are dire. GPS units are fed by map software. Some software is kept fresh by driving teams mapping roads with sophisticated equipment; but others rely on maps that may be old and out of date. And even if software gets updated, some companies and users are lackadaisical, or too cheap, to download the latest updates to their devices.

So on the road this summer, don’t rely solely on your GPS for directions.

Pack a paper map (yes, they still exist) and “don't turn off your internal navigation system when you turn on your gadget,” said NBC News.com technology reporter Bob Sullivan. If a GPS sends you the wrong way, “your sense of direction could be the difference between driving 5 or 50 miles out of your way.”

Find more by Harriet Baskas on StuckatTheAirport.com and follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas

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