Google Maps may be the health hazard you never saw coming

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published November 15, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A man died after driving off an unmarked, collapsed bridge while using Google Maps. His family is now suing Google.

  • Experts discuss the mental and physical costs of relying solely on navigation apps during travel.

Last year, a Hickory, NC man drowned after he drove off a collapsed bridge while using Google Maps. Now, his family is suing Google for his death, claiming that the app led the man astray and to his death.[]

According to the lawsuit, Google Maps directed drivers to cross the bridge for years, which collapsed in 2013. A Hickory resident had also complained to the company in 2020, but the company continued to suggest the route, according to the lawsuit.[]

This tragic chain of events raises questions about whether or not Google Maps is a health hazard. If it is, is using it a risk we’re willing to take? 

Health hazards of navigation apps

Akshaya Srivatsa, a healthcare worker and CEO of Carebetter, a price-transparent healthcare marketplace, says he can “attest to the potential health hazards associated with relying solely on navigation apps like Google Maps.”

“The accuracy of directions provided by these apps is crucial for ensuring the safety of travelers, and any inaccuracies could lead individuals into potentially dangerous situations,” Srivatsa says.

This holds true for road trips or hiking expeditions, he adds. 

In fact, just earlier this month, a hiker was saved after allegedly following a trail that appeared on Google Maps, only to find out the hard way that it wasn’t a route. An emergency team out of Vancouver, Canada, rescued the hiker by helicopter after the person became stranded on a mountainside.[] 

“In the context of hiking trails, inaccurate directions might lead individuals off designated paths, exposing them to environmental risks, challenging terrains, or [a] lack of essential resources like water,” Srivatsa says.

He adds that navigating hazards like broken bridges can also cause people to experience psychological stress, which can thereby impact health outcomes. 

Some refer to deaths caused, in part, by Google Maps and other apps like it as "death by GPS."

It's hard to track how many deaths result in faulty online mapping, partly because these accidents usually don't involve eyewitnesses or additional information like an app being used at the time of death.[]

Nadia Podrabinek, a travel expert and Founder of Why This Place, says that inaccurate directions pose significant health risks to travelers.

“The unreliability of some navigation apps can lead to individuals becoming lost or stranded in unfamiliar places, exposing them to harsh weather, dangerous terrain, or crime, " Podrabinek says. While some people can navigate themselves out of dangerous situations, they may still experience stress or anxiety that can negatively impact their travel experience or health, she adds.

“Even on a less dramatic scale, the stress and anxiety brought about by uncertainty can negatively impact one's travel experience,” Podrabinek notes.

She recommends “thorough preparation before any journey,” which includes “researching the route, understanding the terrain, and having a solid grasp of road conditions.”

Benefits of Google Maps

In the digital age, Google Maps remains one of the most-used navigation services. The tool can be a convenient, effective means of getting travelers where they want to go, and it may have mental health benefits, including giving people reassurance and peace of mind while traveling. However, these benefits depend on the app working correctly.

Stefan Ivantu, MD, MRCPsych, a consultant psychiatrist based in London, says that some people struggle with hyperfocusing on or overanalyzing travel plans. He especially notices this with patients with ADHD, and he says that this can cause them distress. In these cases, Google Maps can take some of the work away from them and give them peace of mind. In addition to using Google Maps for navigation, people should look at online reviews given by other travelers, he says.

“Very few people are aware of how helpful Google Maps reviews can be for someone who is naturally undecided,” Dr. Ivantu says. “Simply being able to read the overall review score of a business helps them tremendously in making the right decision for them.”

Broadening your travel toolbox

For people embarking on trips with Google Maps, Srivatsa encourages practicing supplementary measures like carrying physical maps and letting friends or loved ones know of their whereabouts. 

“While these apps offer convenience, their reliability remains a critical consideration for the overall safety and health of individuals on the move,” Srivatsa says.

Podrabinek expresses a similar sentiment: she warns people that “trusting solely on navigation apps can lead to unanticipated problems” and recommends “always hav[ing] a backup plan.”

Michael Olla, MD, Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Valley Spring Recovery Center, advises that people give themselves permission to change their plans mid-trip, especially if their route appears dangerous.

“Using these apps still [requires] great discretion and common sense,” Dr. Olla adds. “If you start feeling that something is wrong, turn around.”

He encourages people to prepare for hazards, including road or trail blockages and bad weather.

“Remember that navigation apps like Google Maps can point them to the shortest route, but the shortest route isn’t necessarily the safest,” Dr. Olla says.

What this means for you

Faulty directions can put people in dangerous situations and cause mental and physical distress. People who rely on Google Maps for navigation should also carry supplemental materials like physical maps and online reviews of a route and destination. 

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