Tech by VICE

GPS Is Sending Runaway Trucks Through a Tiny Arkansas Town

Is over-reliance on machines to blame?

by Jordan Pearson
Jan 3 2017, 8:42pm

Image: Flickr/Lee Adlaf

Seven big rigs have crashed on a two-mile stretch of highway in the Ozark Mountains just north of the tiny Arkansas town of Ponca over the last few years.

If the transport trucks manage not to wipe out, they instead barrel through the town (population: 100), occasionally with their brake pads on fire, according to a local report by Arkansas Online that was spotted by Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLG.

The reason for these disruptions, according to the locals, is truck drivers' dependence on GPS navigation technology, which doesn't always take into account sharp changes in elevation when calculating the fastest route.

Read More: Why GPS Almost Always Overestimates Distances

"It's a part of the problem, GPS," said Mehdin Ibrahimovic, president of Hawkeye Transportation Services in Iowa, in an interview. On November 9, a trucker under contract with Hawkeye crashed on the notorious stretch of road near Ponca while carrying 400,000 pounds of Capri Sun, he said. (He wasn't injured, according to news reports.)

The problem, Ibrahimovic continued, is that the road near Ponca often looks like the shortest route, and so drivers choose to take it. But GPS doesn't tell the drivers that there's a 1300-foot drop in elevation, as noted by Arkansas Online, which could be unsafe for trucks carrying a heavy load. Ibrahimovic warns drivers not to take that particular route, he said.

"Years ago, you may have had drivers talking to each other about which routes to take from point A to point B instead of relying solely on GPS," Ibrahimovic said.

As Manaugh notes on his blog, individual stories of people being led astray by their GPS systems aren't unique. And while Google Maps, for example, does offer the ability to calculate changes in elevation, there are cases where the company may not possess accurate data and will instead average the elevation of nearby locations.

When dependence on a technology starts to risk life and limb, the issue becomes a whole lot more interesting—and fraught—especially when the byproduct is out-of-control trucks flying through a small Southern town.

Until we deal with that, though, some new road signs should help.

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