Guest commentary: Trust but verify your online maps and directions
By Paul Witman
Cal Lutheran University
It was intended to be a straightforward, 5-hour drive northeast from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to pick up our son at the airport, en route to Utah for Thanksgiving.
But what started as a time-saving detour ended for us in a 2-hour delay to get back to where we left our main route.
Early morning on Nov. 20, Google Maps said the route was in good shape — up the I-15 from Victorville to Las Vegas.
All was well until we reached an area south of Primm, Nevada, near the border.
At about 2 p.m., authorities issued a closure notice for I-15 from Primm to the California border due to dust storms.
We didn’t know that at the time, instead relying just on our phone for routing around any hiccups.
We learned about the issue when Google Maps said to get off at an isolated desert gas station/mining exit.
Taking an excursion several miles to the north of I-15, for about 40 miles total, would save us 56 minutes of travel time.
As we approached the exit, we had the good fortune to be able to see ahead.
I-15 was still moving, but slowly. The exit onto the detour was moving well.
However, there was a long line of folks coming down to the I-15 from that same detour. That was a yellow flag for us to consider.
We had only about 30 seconds to decide. We thought those cars coming off of the detour could be a queue of vehicles coming southeast from Las Vegas.
Google Maps had saved us time before, so we decided to risk it.
As we motored north from I-15, we passed a solidly packed, barely moving line of vehicles coming south.
About 1.5 miles off I-15, one of the southbound drivers flagged us down, suggested we turn around, and reported that “the road is closed up there, you’ll either get stuck or have to join the line further back.”
After consternation about the ethics of making a U-turn in the middle of a huge line of jammed cars, we did it anyway, thanks to a courteous southbound driver. The entire time we were returning from the detour to I-15, we continued to see groups of cars coming up from I-15.
We don’t know what prompted those folks, or when Google Maps stopped recommending that route, or if they ever did that day.
During our two hours trying to cover that 1.5 miles back to I15, we saw other drivers coming down the southbound shoulder and down the opposing lane of traffic as well.
We were quite concerned that road rage might ensue with these more serious line jumpers bypassing the queue! Fortunately, all was peaceful, if not a bit grumpy.
Others weren’t as lucky.
News reports from the following days indicated that thousands of vehicles had taken these routes, and some of the earliest to try the detour drove well past their vehicle capabilities, with at least one needing to call a tow service to recover their broken vehicle, and reporting that for part of the detour they were driving only 2-3 mph due to the dirt road’s poor condition.
Google Maps later issued an apology for this issue and indicated that they would “no longer recommend” this detour.
However, one unanswered question is why this detour went on so long, with apparently almost no one getting through.
Google Maps gets data about each user of their app, and so it seems they could have known that no drivers were successfully transiting the detour — all or almost all were turning around.
Bad as this was, at least it wasn’t a fully automated car taking us out to the desert with no ability to redirect it, and it wasn’t a hot summer day. Always and everywhere, drivers need to apply common sense to any online map service’s directions, and to road and vehicle conditions. Stay safe out there, and be a cautious map user!
Paul Witman is a professor emeritus in information technology management at California Lutheran University.