Friday, January 23, 2009

Me & My Garmin

I’m generally pretty good with directions and finding my way on the highways. I love maps and often study them; I usually have no problem figuring out the best route, no matter where I am. But there are times when traffic is backed up, due to an accident or just excessive volume, and it would be an advantage to be able to get off a particular road and find another way. If this occurs in familiar territory, it’s not a big deal; if you’re in a strange land, it’s quite another story. It is for that reason I bought a GPS receiver–a Garmin Nuvi 350.

This particular model has a couple of features I don’t really need–like a built-in MP3 player–but it was cheaper at the time I bought it than a lesser model, so I figured, “why not?”

I should have known there would be impending problems upon my first use of the unit; I was going from East Meadow to Amityville, where I worked a part-time job since retiring, so I decided to see how the GPS would suggest I go. I entered the address of the place where I worked and left my home, driving east on Hempstead Turnpike, in the general direction of work. The first weird thing it did was suggest I go south on Loring Road , which runs along side the Wantagh Parkway, instead of directing me onto the Parkway–an obviously quicker route.

If I had taken Loring Road, I would have had to drive a couple of miles, turning onto two other roads, before getting on the Southern State Parkway, going east, which anyone would tell you is the best route to Amityville. As it is, I disregarded the GPS directive and used the Wantagh Parkway, evoking a now-familiar response from the Garmin’s digital female voice: “RECALCULATING!

Since that day, I’ve blessed the GPS on several occasions, for getting me out of trouble or back onto the correct route after missing a turn. It’s extricated me from areas in which I had no clue where I was going, and I’ve been amazed by its ability to direct me through very tight and quick turns within the streets of Manhattan. While there is no doubt it is a very useful tool for anyone doing frequent driving, it’s also disappointed me by displaying its many faults.

When our grandkids were spending a week with us last summer, we took them to the Vanderbilt Planetarium and Museum, in Centerport, Long Island. Upon leaving the Vanderbilt, we asked the kids where they might want to go for lunch; “Taco Bell” seemed to be their choice. In an effort to find the closest Taco Bell, I plugged in the Garmin, brought up “restaurants”, and typed in “Taco Bell.” The GPS immediately found one on Larkfield Road, in Northport, about three miles away.

I followed the on-screen directions until the GPS told me to turn left down a residential street; “odd,” I thought, but I figured it was a shortcut. Upon making the turn, however, I saw a “dead end” sign on the side of the street. It seems the street originally cut through to Larkfield Road but, for some time anyway, it no longer did. After detouring south to the next street parallel to the previous one, I eventually did reach Larkfield Road and the Taco Bell restaurant. It was boarded up and closed!

Last December, we were up at our daughter’s place in Connecticut, on a Saturday, and had to go to Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday for my cousin John’s annual Christmas Party. Of course, I know how to get to John’s place from our home on Long Island, but since we were driving from Wallingford, Connecticut, I was going to take some different roads.

I would surely encounter less traffic by crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, in Westchester, and then driving south to Rutherford once I was on the west side of the Hudson River. However, the entire time I was driving southwest on the Wilbur Cross/Merritt Parkway, my GPS kept directing me to go south on every major road I came upon in an effort to get me on I-95 and, eventually, the George Washington Bridge. For those readers who are not from the New York metropolitan area, I’ve got to tell you there are two things I avoid like the plague: the Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) and the George Washington Bridge. Besides, the Cross Westchester Expressway (I-287) and the Tappan Zee Bridge are further north and closer to where I was coming from. But, once that lady in the Garmin has a route in her head, it’s hard to dissuade her from her plans.

Anyway, I took the Tappan Zee, the GPS “recalculated,” and it eventually took me down the Garden State Parkway in Jersey, directing me through all kinds of complex interchanges and tight turns, before depositing me outside my cousin’s front door from the opposite direction I usually approach it from.

During our May, 2008, trip to visit some cousins I’d never met before (but found while compiling my genealogy research) Ro and I spent a couple of days in Baltimore, Maryland. On the day we left to visit some friends, I entered “flea market” into my GPS search directory; the Garmin came up with a flea market in Tracy’s Landing, not far from our friends’ place in Edgewater.

I proceeded to follow the directions but the further I drove, the smaller and more rural the roads became. At long last, we arrived at our destination, but there was no flea market; we found ourselves at the edge of a lake, with residential homes all around us. Clearly, the GPS had steered us wrong. Maybe there was originally a person living at that location who ran a flea market and the GPS had found that listing in the phone directory which it often utilizes. I don’t know. But that’s only one of many times my Garmin has sent in on a wild goose chase.

This past summer, Ro and I were driving up to Cape Cod. I programmed in our destination and figured the GPS would help me get around any traffic I might encounter along the way. As I approached Providence, Rhode Island, on I-95, my Garmin told me to take Exit 21 to I-195 (east toward Cape Cod). However, there had been recent road work in the area and there was now a NEW exchange between I-95 and I-195: Exit 20!

Once we were in the area near our motel, we occasionally put in addresses of nearby attractions. At one point, we tried to find a restaurant at 1176 Main Street, in South Yarmouth, MA (zip 02664). My search did not find that address (even though it exists and I found it by driving along & looking for it) but the GPS offered me SIX other addresses in South Yarmouth instead: 999 Main St., 499 Main St., 499 N. Main St., 499 N. Main (again), 173 N. Main, and 21 N. Main Street. Why on earth would it do that?
I recently emailed Garmin with a list of things I was not happy about with my GPS. After a few exchanges between myself and a customer service rep, I was told I could download updated maps for my GPS at a cost of $69.95. Now, if I hadn’t just spent over $300 for my Garmin only a year ago, I might find that a reasonable suggestion (they've also come down in price in the past year). But, given the fact that my unit was less than a year old, and was shipped with what I feel were outdated maps to begin with, I think Garmin ought to comp me at least one map upgrade. A subsequent letter to Garmin's corporate headquarters went unanswered!

The bottom line is that the GPS can be a very useful aid while driving but I wouldn’t say it takes the place of a map. I still prefer to study a map before I go somewhere new, and plot what I feel is the best route. I’ll use the GPS to alert me to upcoming turns and exits, and as a backup in case I have to deviate from my planned route. It’s strongest virtue is still in close quarters and insuring that you find your final destination when you’ve approached the target area.