GPS on Your Smartphone? 7 Reasons Why a Dedicated Car GPS System is Safer

The GPS navigation system offers a number of compelling safety benefits to travelers venturing into unfamiliar territory, including keeping us from getting lost, guiding us to the nearest service station, rest area or hospital, and allowing us to report our precise location to emergency responders. Though the presence of another electronic device in the car can be a distraction, those of us who remember wrestling with large, unwieldy paper maps while trying to keep our eyes on the road see the in-vehicle GPS revolution as a net benefit, particularly with the addition of voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions.

TomTom's iPhone App

TomTom's iPhone App

Now there’s a new revolution afoot, namely the growing availability and sophistication of GPS features on smartphones, such as the iPhone, Android and Google Nexus One. However, from a safety perspective, there are strong arguments as to why the GPS on your mobile phone is best used while you’re stopped or sitting in the passenger seat and a dedicated in-vehicle GPS unit remains a better choice:

  1. Eyes Forward – Read With Your Ears: One of the principal dangers of electronic devices in the car is the fact that they draw your eyes away from the road ahead. Virtually all dedicated in-car GPS navigation systems include spoken turn-by-turn directions (“in one mile, turn left”). The best units also include text-to-speech capability, i.e., they read the street names aloud (“in one mile, turn left on Main Street”). Mobile phone apps don’t always include these features and the speaker volume and sound quality is usually much better on dedicated GPS units, which have larger speakers.
  2. Screen Size: Even with spoken directions, there are times when the driver must refer to the GPS unit’s visual map display. While the quality of mobile screen displays continue to improve, their size remains small, significantly smaller than that of a dedicated GPS unit. This makes it more difficult to discern detail and has the potential to keep your eyes off the road longer.
  3. Size of Controls: Touchscreens can be tricky to operate even when you’re not driving. Since mobile phones are smaller than dedicated GPS units, the soft buttons you press to control the unit are also smaller, requiring more effort, finesse, and time to operate. Again, this has the potential to keep your eyes off the road.
  4. Heads Up: Dedicated GPS units can be mounted to the windshield or dashboard such that they don’t require the driver to move his or her head to read the display; simply moving the eyes can provide a sufficient view. Unless a mobile phone is mounted in a similar fashion, rather than set on the passenger seat, in the cup holder or ash tray as is commonly the case, the driver must not only avert eyes and head to view the display, but also may need to remove a hand from the wheel in order to hold the phone so it can be more easily viewed, another distraction.
  5. Power: While dedicated GPS units typically plug into the car’s power, we’re accustomed to the convenience of using our mobile phones without plugging them in. When running on battery power, the mobile phone’s screen saver may activate, requiring you to reactivate it (by touching the screen, for example), another distraction and requirement to remove a hand from the wheel.
  6. It’s For You: Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your smartphone is, well, a phone. An ill-timed phone call could interfere with your ability to navigate.
  7. Precision: Receiving a GPS signal from space requires an antenna and sensitive GPS chip. A dedicated GPS unit has a larger antenna and typically a very sensitive GPS chipset which ensures you can receive GPS signals even among tall buildings and under a forest canopy. Your mobile phone handset can’t offer the same level of sensitivity and therefore won’t be able to calculate your location as precisely. Why is this a safety concern? Without a good fix on your location, your GPS may route you incorrectly or provide directions too late for you to make a turn safely.

There’s no doubt that smartphone technology will continue to improve and address a number of these safety concerns, but for now there remain strong safety benefits for using a dedicated in-car GPS unit while using your mobile phone as a backup or when riding shotgun. Today’s dedicated GPS systems, such as Garmin’s nuvi series, are portable and lightweight, easily carried in your purse or briefcase. If you must use your mobile phone to navigate, take the following steps to maximize safety:

  • Make sure your phone is mounted to your windshield or dashboard in a “heads-up” position
  • Plug your phone in to your car’s power supply
  • Make sure the speaker volume of your phone is adequate; use your car’s speakers by plugging your car’s speaker jack (if available) into your phone; alternatively, use the phone’s wired or wireless earpiece to ensure that you are able to hear spoken directions well.
  • Plan and review your route before you head out and while stopped
  • Stay off the phone until you’re stopped or driving in an area where you don’t need immediate GPS assistance
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