The pitfalls of depending too heavily on GPS navigation were exposed recently on the Big Island by a parade of rental cars steered by iPhone-clutching tourists trying to navigate their way along the scenic Hamakua Coast.

big island locator badgeDue to an inexplicable mix-up, the Apple Maps application two weeks ago started rerouting motorists off the Hawaii Belt Road that stretches seamlessly from Hilo to Honokaa, sending drivers on a five-mile detour through a residential neighborhood with a potentially perilous quarter-mile of unpaved road.

Riddled with boulders, rocks and ruts, the detour spelled trouble for anyone without a four-wheel drive vehicle.

There was no construction work or new hazards on the main highway to merit the re-route. But thousands of travelers diligently followed their GPS application into rough terrain anyway.

Concerned for the safety of tourists led astray by GPS navigation, Peter Mills posted a sign on his residential road to warn motorists against driving on an unpaved road studded with rocks, divots and boulders. Courtesy: Peter Mills/2022

Most motorists who reached the rugged stretch of road appeared to recognize that it wouldn’t be wise to attempt to traverse it, and turned around. But every once in a while, a motorist would launch onto the unpaved roadway and into a potentially dangerous situation.

Last week a pair of minivans got temporarily stuck in ruts on the road. A mother with a toddler in tow successfully crossed the unpaved route, but not without a few close calls.

Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii Hilo who lives along the detour, said the Apple Maps glitch sent a wayward car past his house about once every three minutes for more than two weeks until the GPS company fixed the problem over the weekend.

“Not only are they wasting half an hour of their day by taking this detour but they’re sort of going like sheep off the cliff,” Mills said. “I want to run out there to everyone and say, ‘Hey, turn around! You’re going somewhere that’s unsafe.’ It’s like this nagging sense that I need to do something but I can’t camp out there all day.”

Concerned about the situation, Mills posted a handmade sign warning motorists about the GPS issue. He also reported the problem to Apple Maps, alerted the Hawaii Police Department about the possible safety hazard and called rental car companies in Hilo and Kona to ask them to spread the word about the situation to their customers.

Although smartphones and GPS navigation generally make travel easier, a snafu can sometimes disorient travelers, sending them into challenging terrain that their vehicles might not be equipped to negotiate.

“It’s amazing,” Mills said. “Some people are so attached to their GPS, even when they look at this nasty, gravel, hilly, four-wheel drive road, they launch on down it.”

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