/ Motoring, Technology

Ditch the sat nav and use a map!

Sat nav sign

A survey this week revealed that more than two thirds of under-25s can’t read a map and are totally reliant on a sat nav when driving. Shouldn’t we be able to manage without GPS?

Two small occurrences have combined to compel me to start banging away on my keyboard about sat navs.

A couple of weeks ago, my other half declared indignantly that he should buy a second sat nav so he could have one in each of his two cars. He uses the devices religiously, even on journeys when he’s pretty sure that he knows where he’s going already.

And then MyVoucherCodes’s survey about the majority of under-25s being unable to read a map hit my inbox. What on earth happened to the adventurous spirit of the young at heart? You can’t stick a pin in a sat nav to select a destination and then drive there just for fun!

Learn to use a map

On a more serious note, what do such people do if their electronic directions box develops a fault? If they haven’t even mastered the simple art of map-reading, they’re unlikely to have learnt how to work out where ‘north’ is by using the sun or stars – so they’re going to be lost for a long time.

In contrast to the under-25s surveyed, I don’t own a sat nav and I don’t want one. It may take a little longer to check the map and note down directions before setting off, but once I’ve done this for one route, all this info will stay in my head for future journeys.

Ok, so I do get occasionally lost, but considering I drive around 15,000 miles a year, I don’t think that’s too bad.

There’s a place for sat navs

This isn’t to say I’m a total luddite. Just like my colleague Chris Christoforou – who recently posted a Conversation questioning our reliance on sat navs – I appreciate that they’re important for industries like aviation and shipping.

They can be useful for other situations too, such as directing you to a cheaper petrol station when you’re on a long haul journey. And we know it’s important to test them, as so many people find them useful and want to know which sat navs are best.

But, like Chris, I am concerned that our society is becoming too reliant on these little black boxes. What about you – are you on the side of the sat nav or the good old paper map?


I have no satnav and don’t want one. When I am going into a strange town I google it and take copies of exactly where I need to go. But then with 80 years behind me I suppose I have mastered several skills that 25 year olds have. But don’t knock ’em, they have many I never needed and it’s too late for now.

Meant to type “that many 25 year olds DONT have”. But that’s one of the flaws of 80 years!

Sally Hanley says:
19 July 2011

I agree with John. A directions site which says ‘turn right in 5.3 miles, turn left in 50m’ is just plain boring and almost impossible to do when you’re watching the road, pedestrians, cyclists etc.
A sat nav which does a similar thing is not necessarily any better.
I prefer to know about local landmarks and always give my clients landmarks to show they’re on the right road ‘turn left by the post box, right opposite the Fox & Hounds etc. I read the map, plan the route, look for landmarks on the satellite map, and get there (usually) hassle-free.
Okay, so it may be ‘quicker’ with a sat nav, but they’re not always right are they. And when they’re wrong, it can be spectacular. Some traditional skills keep showing they’re not done with yet!

JinnyG says:
21 July 2011

I have always had a fascination with maps. Not only can you see the topography of the area where you are but you see yourself in relation to your surrounding villages and towns. I saw a television programme sometime ago called “That’ll Teach Them” and I was appalled to see that “A” grade GCSE students could not place London or any of our major cities in the correct place on an outline map of the UK. London ended up underneath the Lake District! I feel this ignorance is compounded by dependence on SatNavs but I regret to say, I am sure it is now irreversible.

Mike says:
22 July 2011

For severalyears I thought the idea of a SatNav futile as I am more than capable of finding my way around without. I’m 53 so had to learn to usea map having started driving at 17. However a couple of years ago my wife and I did purchase one as a joint anniversary present. I have found it useful for directions but on several occassions have had to use a map to get me to some out of the way places that SatNav could only get me near to. Yes they are good, but not a complete replacement formaps anddirection signs

While I do not, yet, have a sat-nav but I have travelled as passenger in unfamiliar surrounding using one and I can certainly see their merit – indeed one unpleasant very late night search for a hotel in a foreign city would have been avoided if a sat nav had been available in the hire-car.
Possibly more relevant, I regard myself as an experienced map reader both in a car or on foot in the countryside, but have been surprised how useful I have found a smartphone app which provides me with 1:25000 maps of the countryside along with GPS facilities for use when walking. And, at a price, you can download the relevant map when it is required unexpectedly. We should not mock new technology, but use it sensibly and, if possible, try not to be totally reliant on it.

Sat-Navs became “essential” when motoring writers ( generally youngsters) in magazines such as Autocar insisted that, if your new car didn’t have one, you could never sell it!! -rubbish. (same thing with leather upholstery)
A friend purchased a 3 year old Car with Sat-Nav. On the first trip on which he eventually mastered its use, he got part way home correctly but wrong directions thereafter. He can’t now trust it.

We probably could (and did) ‘manage’ without a Sat Nav, but should we settle for ‘managing’. People ‘managed’ without Sky+ and the Internet but surely we should look for more in life than just ‘managing.’ I first used a Sat Nav a couple of years ago, i found them incredibly useful for getting around towns i didnt know, i know it wouldve taken me 5 hours to find the place which the Sat Nav got me to inside 30 minutes. On motorways and main roads, its pretty self explanatory where to go, i dont think you need them so much there. But no matter how useful they are you should still look out of your car, at things. Alot of the ‘use diversion not sat nav’ signs are there because the diversion takes you more miles than you need to go (which your Sat Nav would know) but its in place to stop traffic roaring through sleepy villages which your Sat Nav would tell you to do to save time and fuel.

Miss R says:
7 January 2012

I have to say I really don’t like using a sat nav. I have a really good sense of direction for not using one and generally if i go somewhere once i can get myself there again. I love getting lost and finding my way back as it gives me more knowledge of the roads. I find that people with sat navs do not pay attention to the road signs and as a result make last minute decisions that are dangerous on occasions. I have also found from working in the fleet industry that when you suggest to someone that uses sat nav religiously to use a map when it stops working, you get your head bitten off. It is amazing how people have become so reliant on them

Comments here show a lot of varied experiences with road navigation – and these have fuelled attitudes towards sat-navs.

I am a geographer and love maps – I wouldn’t take a major fresh journey without consulting one. I also use a sat-nav. I also use road signs – I’ve been taught good observation in advanced driver training. And I also use my eyes and common sense. All of these add up together to a safer and more interesting journey. None of them alone is either safe or useful, as many others here have pointed out.

The point is, that people us what’s available to navigate, as well as what they’re comfortable with – there are skills needed for any kind of navigation. But it’s combining several methods that work best.

I don’t own a SatNav, have managed 39 years of driving without one, and would not need one to get from town to town within the UK or abroad. However, whilst driving recently in Germany I had to get a windscreen replaced. Our hosts did have a SatNav, and this was able to guide them and me directly to the garage even though nobody knew the street in the town concerned. I appreciate that I could have gone on line and printed off a map from Google maps (or similar), but the SatNav did help in this instance. Mind you, a bit of research, plus half a sheet of A4 written directions to follow, and I didn’t need to even refer to a map to get home (from Bayreuth, Bavaria) – reference to my notes, road signs, and a basic sense of direction was sufficient. I am, though, thinking about getting one for a motor bike – it is not as easy to read a map whilst riding a bike.

Yes, Malcolm, me too (driving for countless years, etc), but that doesn’t diminish the value of sat nav. I can look at an OS 1;50,000 or 1:25,000 OS map, form a picture of it in my head, and drive from A to B. But that doesn’t help me find the nearest ATM, filling station, etc. Nor will it tell me where to be alert for speed cameras. And, on a long journey, I won’t necessarily be able to pick out the shortest or fastest route (I thought I could but now know I was sometimes wrong, even in my local area); sure, google maps will tell me, but I may not have google maps in front of me, may not have a detailed map, may not have time to research the journey. On a recent cruise, I rented cars in a number of ports in Croatia, Greece and Turkey; sat nav (TomTom on my iPhone, hence highly portable) made it so very easy to find my may to Olympia, Mycenae, Ephesus, etc. I love maps and wouldn’t be without them for anything, but nor would I be without sat nav (just as, while I can fix a shelf to a wall with hand tools, I wouldn’t be without my electric drill).

I agree with you, Malcolm. But when you have no competent navigator, the satnav – used wisely – adds to the ease of getting around and makes it safer, too.

Maybe map reading should be a part of the driving test.

Sadly far far too many drivers do NOT use the sat nav wisely.that is why there are sat nav induced crashes.

A sat nav unit is another electronic toy I have no use for. I learned how to read a map 50 years ago. I work in operations for a trucking company and we run a fleet of refrigerated trucks from coast to coast in the US. Many of our drivers have satnav unit which are made especially for commercial use, taking into consideration low bridges and truck restricted roads, and I can’t count how many times I have received a call because they got lost.

A few years ago we traveled from Montana to Reno, Nevada for a bowling tournament with some good friends. My friend who traveled a lot for his work had a satnav unit which he constantly kept updated and it didn’t impress me at all. Right off it wanted us to go the wrong way, instructing us to take the interstate highway instead of a 2 lane road. It would have added an extra 100 miles to the trip. I had been to Reno a number of times and knew the roads we would have to travel on and foud numerous times that the satnav would want us to take other routes.

I’ll keep my maps thank you.

What a disparaging comment. Sat nav is not a toy and no number of personal anecdotes will diminish its value. I too learned to read maps many years ago (proper maps produced by the OS) and love them, but good sat nav systems complement them wonderfully, at least for non-luddites. They can also make for safer driving – how many people have you seen balancing a map on the steering wheel as they try and navigate while driving? Most problems with satnavs are down to incompetent users, e.g. asking for the fastest route and then being surprised when it sends them a long way round (although I concede that I’ve always felt that there should be ‘fastest within reason’ and ‘shortest within reason’ options). I always plan a route with a map (paper or online) and then make sure the satnav offers something similar, before setting off, to avoid the sort of problems you describe; that way, I know the route makes sense but don’t have to worry about finding the right turnings.

Each to their own view, but for me a sat nav is an aid to safety and removes much of the stress of driving in an unfamiliar area and having to stop frequently to consult a map.

In referring to an electronic toy, perhaps Chetz is referring to a TomTom with Homer Simpson and other silly voices. Which goon thought up that idea.

The satnav system he had was a Garmin. I really have no problem using a map. Last year we took a road trip from Montana to the Florida Keys and back, visiting friends along the way. The trip was over 6,500 miles and we had no problem using maps. I really had any stress, but we have made numerous road trips across the country and are quite used to it.

I note the use of ‘we’. What if there were only a driver, trying to navigate unfamiliar territory? I’ve done it many times myself, often driving across Europe. I always resisted the temptation to look at the map while driving, stopping periodically to read my notes or study the map and memorise the next few turns. On some occasions, I even recorded step-by-step instructions to myself on a cassette (remember those?), starting and stopping it as I went. Satnav is easier, safer and gets you there faster, especially if you do as I suggested and check the planned route before you set off. I’ve found TomTom routing generally very good but it does seem happy to send you many miles extra to save a minute or two, if you specify ‘fastest route’, or send you down near-unpassable tracks for ‘shortest’.

Good point Aitch. I normally drive alone,so a map is inconvenient. I have a navigator the sat nav usually goes off. If I’m the navigator I prefer to use the sat nav because studying maps makes me queasy. I don’t think we have to justify our choices because sat navs are rather popular these days.

Nice to see this conversation restarting – it’ll soon be three years, 76 comments! A reminder to new people to the thread to at least scan from the beginning of page 1 (you are generally sent to the latest page) to see what’s already been said.

On all of my longer-distance trips in the USA, I’ve found a road atlas to be an excellent guide, and a satnav wouldn’t have helped planning at all. This is in Florida, the Carolinas and south & central California. But all that’s been said before here (do look back) about satnav’s safety and aid on the move would be just as true now as it’s been over the last 5 years, since the satnav came of age and the mapping became accurate. Modern satnavs DO NOT send people down deadends or narrow tracks as a matter of routine, though adapting them for large vehicles like artics and buses is still ongoing (this week’s news!) The point about sending you 100 miles out of the direct route so as to stick to motorways/freeways is well taken But this is because most current models default to using the ‘biggest’ road available. They can be ‘tuned’ to do otherwise if you wish. I generally use maps to plan and satnav to drive; where the satnav wants to take me the ‘motorway/A road’ way and I’ve planned otherwise, I find that if I ignore it at the branch point for a few miles, it usually begins to agree with my choice and picks up from there correctly.

The thing is, the satnav can take over simple tasks from us (turn left ahead; this is the A3021), but it can’t think, nor plan well. The critical tasks are the driver’s to decide and the satnav, as a tool to be learned and utilized, is merely an aid. But it is a useful one, within its limits.

Traveling in Europe is a lot different than traveling in the United States. I have traveled through Europe in a car and I did find it just a little more difficult, but this was years ago. My wife is usually with me on all of our trips, and is an excellent navigator. In recent years a smart phone had come in handy. If we are looking for a hotel or other services she takes care of it while I am driving. I have no problem in stopping and taking a break to check a map either.

The experience I had with my friends Garmin was my one and only experience with satnav, and he said the it was set for the most direct route. After about 60 miles it finally recalculated and was giving correct information until we got into Reno. The it did want us to take a different route than we did. Being that I had been there numerous times before and we finally turned “Gerturde” off and I again took the shortest route, one that I was very familiar with. We also had a few other glitches with the while traveling arounf anywhere from Lake Tahoe, Carson City and Virginia city. At one point she had us going in circles. She didn’t impress me at all.

I wasn’t really impressed, but I guess if I were in an ara that I had no prior experience, a satnav would be helpful, but again, I have no problem at all using a map.

I did wonder! Considering that satnavs originated in the USA, one would have thought that they would by now be more sophisticated in their route management there.

In the UK, all the better models are – in general – almost faultless in making sensible route choices, even if we could manually do better. The regular Which? testing confirms this. Your use of a smart phone using (presumably) Google Maps in Europe should have mirrored the same experience with a good satnav, though I have found the TomTom and Garmin better Google, particularly on the move.

Anyone else got comments on Which?-recommended satnavs (tested with UK maps, remember) in the USA?

I’ve used TomTom and CoPilot on my iPhone several times in the US and Canada, including Lake Tahoe that Chetz mentions (LA to SF to Lake Tahoe and back to LA via all sorts of places). TomTom was generally excellent but CoPilot let us down many times. On one occasion, 18 months ago, when I asked for the fastest route back from Baddeck to our cruise ship in Sydney, Nova Scotia, it took us down many miles of dirt tracks until we got to a steep boulder-strewn one with a sign warning us of the risks of using it. At that point, we turned tail and followed our noses back to tarmac (and got to the ship just 10 minutes before sailing). I had similar problems with CoPilot in the UK, e.g. sending us via the M4 as the fastest route from Newbury to Devizes; when I forced it to use the A4, it told us that my route was considerably shorter AND faster than its. We have also used TomTom/iPhone right across Europe and, as in the US, it has been great, never letting us down badly. I’ve never had a chance to try Garmin but Amazon reviewers as well as Which? are full of praise.

A while back I was watching 5th gear (Yes, from the UK) and they ran their own tests on satnav units. It was interesting. The ran a number of different units, from the least expensive to the most. In almost every case, the routes differed slightly. I haven’t bothered looking for tests done here in the US and I really have no interest in buying a satnav unit. Even though we do put on thousands of miles a year on road trips, I am fine with using a map. It adds a bit of adventure to the trip, and in over 40 years, we never really got lost to any extent.

After my one and only experience with satnav, I really wasn’t impressed.

Incidentally, Google maps won’t work if you don’t have a data connection. Very often there’s no phone signal available and, even when there is, I’d rather pay for an app like TomTom than rack up roaming charges, especially outside Europe..

Don’t know where you are in the US, Chetz, but I’d have thought that the value of a satnav would be higher in crowded city streets than in the wide open spaces – one-way systems are more of a hazard to strangers than freeways.

It’s possible that avoiding certain roads and tracks is policy in the ‘States, respected by the mapping systems (where on the photos, some places are ‘grayed out’.) I was once driving from Las Vegas to Palm Desert, crossing the Joshua Tree National Park. We got a little lost using the map trying to find our motel in Twentynine Palms, driving by night, and we DID turn into the nearby Marine Base (thinking that we were bypassing it). We were persuaded to stop and turn around by seeing the pointy end of an assault rifle! The guard was sympathetic to a poor Brit, though – then said that had we gone 20 yards further, he’s have shot our tires out!

The Garmin satnav that I tried later would have sent me from LV, via the LA outskirts and past Palm Desert to the Park, just to stay on freeways (and double the distance). It only saw the South entrance to the Park, possibly because the North entrance was next to the Marine Base entrance.

Also, Chetz, you’re saying ‘we’ again. Navigating by map is so much easier when you have a navigator! For anyone on their own, satnav makes a fine navigator, especially if they don’t have the opportunity of planning in advance, e.g. when called and asked to go somewhere at short notice.

I live in Montana, and we do have some wide open spaces here. I live about an hour north of Yellowstone National Park.

I am a NASCAR fan and we try to make a few races in person each year and travel about the country on a regular basis, putting on thousands of miles each year. I do have a bit of and advantage as I work in operations for a trucking company that runs from coast to coast. Part of the job is routing our trucks the most efficiently way across the country, and I have a lot of software at my disposal for this. I constantly have drivers calling for directions also. I use it to help me also on trips.

One of my favorites is Google Earth. I use it along with various maps and it is extremely helpful. I also have it on my smart phone. It’s quite helpful during out travels to find lodging and restaurants. I can’t really call it satnav, but it is a big help to also find a street address also when visiting friends or relatives. A big part of not needing satnav is probably years of experience traveling across the country. Occasionally I may miss a street while in a larger city, but it has never caused any problems. A big help is planning in advance and not waiting until the last moment.

Yes, I did say “we” again as my wife also enjoys traveling, but there have been many occaions when I’ll travel alone, and still with a little advance planning, I have no major problems.

Fair enough but advance planning isn’t always possible. Many’s the time I’ve had to drive somewhere at zero notice and with no time to plan.

Don’t misunderstand – I love maps and will happily sit and browse one, especially an OS 1:25000 map, rather than read a book or watch TV. Until satnavs came along, I was dependent on paper maps and more than capable of using them, but satnav saves the planning and is particularly valuable in unfamiliar cities, especially foreign ones (often in countries where people insist on driving on the wrong side 😉

It has become common practice to give the postcode for a venue for the convenience of satnav users. Sometimes it would be very handy to be able just to quote the postcode when speaking to someone on the phone, to say where you are. My satnavs only provide coordinates, and that would probably be unhelpful to another satnav user.

Are there any satnavs that show current location as a postcode? The last time I looked online all I found was others with the same enquiry.

Wavechange – I don’t think so but there are plenty of smartphone apps that will allow you to show your location to other (authorised) users of the app.

Thanks. That might be fun to try with friends.

Wave change, you can get an app to use with your kids that is set up to let you know here they are. It works by triangulating their position from the signal strength at three or more nearby base stations – or by using satnav technology if that’s built into their phone. Could be handy when shopping with the wife, too – mine’s always losing myself!

Some of our drivers use satnav, and depending on the unit they have, some do ask for the postal code, along with an address. I don’t know how thing are in europe, but in some large cities in the states, there can be multiple places with the same address only a few miles apart. I have had instances where an address will come up in the wrong town, being that it may only be a few streets away. It can be confusing at times. On numerous occasions I have had a driver call and say that their satnav said that they were at the location entered, but the actual customer could be a distance away. I have heard some very colorful descriptions of drivers satnavs when that happens.

That shouldn’t happen in the UK (or Canada or Netherlands, unless I’m much mistaken, maybe other countries too). In the UK, a postcode will take you very close to the location and a house name or number will normally finish the job – no street name needed. The only problem I’ve found is that, sometimes, with large buildings, e.g. National Trust properties, the postcode won’t take you to the entrance and finding it can be tricky.

Chetz, are you talking about the full 5+4 ZIP code applying to several streets, or just the area ZIP? I’ve often found when making online purchases in the ‘States that the nine digits are rarely asked for; presumably USPS is relying on the local postperson knowing the area if not. In any case, do modern US satnavs ask for and use the full 5+4 ZIP? The ones I tried a few years ago did not.

The satnav units that some drivers use is only the 5 digit zip. Most postal carriers know their area like the back of their hand around here, some of them running the same routes for decades.

I live in a rural area and until about 10 years ago we didn’t even have a physical address, just a PO box. We still don’t get mail delivery and have to go to the post office for our mail. One nice thing is that just about everyone knows everyone.

The friend that brought his Garmin on the trip to Reno worked for the government and like I had mentioned, was constantly updated, and he did say for the most part was reliable, but many times useless. Sometimes it would bring him to the front door but in some cases out in the middle of a field.

Mmm. That sounds right for a 5-digit ZIP. The helpful satnav, like Google Maps, drops you at the geographical centre of the code – whether there’s a road there or not. You then have to look around for more help; fine if you know the area. Older satnavs in the UK used to only use part one of our Postcode, for an area rather than the exact street, with similar results. But today, it’s been worthwhile manufacturers incorporating the full code, which is fine in urban areas but not so good in really remote areas where it does need local knowledge to discover some addresses. I guess that it is both expensive and heavy on satnav memory to build in the full 5+4 to all US addresses, though surely worthwhile.

The complete UK code (eg, NG2 1AF or SE12W 4XZ) was intended to be a handful bundle of letters out of the postperson’s bag, for a set group of properties. So it will be a whole short street, or a section of a longer one, or a single large company. Only out in the wilds (where fast Broadband internet is generally also difficult) will it be, say, a collection of widely-spaced farms and hard to navigate to. In cases where, rather than a name (like ‘Broad’s Farm’, ‘The Nook’, or ‘Smith & Co’), there’s a building number, satnavs can ask for postcode and house number, which spots the address exactly. Then, “You have reached your destination” really does mean what it says!

Because UK satnavs now have this to-your-door accuracy for most addresses, many delivery companies have now invested in ‘Logistics Software’ based on one of the satnav systems. This works out a delivery route and timing before the truck sets off in the morning. So a customer can ask to be warned of delivery by an email or text message. This gives an approximate delivery time the previous day (and the chance to reschedule) and, as the round begins, a more detailed message with a short time slot like an hour during which the driver will almost certainly appear on the doorstep. Delays from snarlups and other unforeseen blockages on the roads can be avoided by using the satnav’s live updating service for road conditions: the best of the delivery systems monitor traffic speeds and adjust the delivery slot if needed with a further message. Brilliant!

Going back to the headline topic for this Conversation, such automated systems can help both safety and peoples’ convenience, making GOOD satnavs a worthwhile tool.