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My brain is a little box on the dashboard, and other preludes to disaster

How well do you know America?

In this case, I mean the map, the contours, the location of things, what highways go where and so on.

A few years ago – actually, quite a number of years ago – I was in an office where a friend of mine worked, and I found out most people don’t know our country as well as I thought they did.

It came up in a conversation with the receptionist. I won’t mention any names, because I don’t want to embarrass her. She’s very intelligent and kind, as are most of the folks in her family.

In fact, it’s worthy of note that she was a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, a pretty exclusive list of young people, the top academically.

We were talking about geography, and she said she couldn’t figure out why everyone always said it was so cold in Alaska.

After some conversation and questions, we figured out why she was confused. In every classroom she had been in, from kindergarten up, the globes had been removed. She had seen nothing but maps of our country.

On those maps, Alaska and Hawaii were always in a cut-out on the lower left side of the map. So to her, Alaska appeared to be off the coast of Mexico.

Again, I don’t mean to embarrass anyone. But I do think this is an early example of a major problem we have now.

People don’t seem to know how the country is laid out, how our roads work, where you can go, and where you can’t. And many times these days, the letters GPS end up being part of the story.

Is anyone else baffled by how many times the excuse “I was just following my GPS” is used when someone is stuck in an insane situation?

Let’s look at just some examples.

There are the truckers who end up on the section of Vermont Route 108, better known as Smugglers’ Notch, a twisty-curvy bundle of switchbacks; or on the Tail of the Dragon, a similarly truck-unfriendly route that crosses the Tennessee-North Carolina border southwest of Knoxville.

How about the GPS bug that sends people looking for the Spokane, Wash., Social Security office into a quiet residential neighborhood instead?

Doesn’t impress you? How about the fact that so many high-clearance vehicles have been through the infamous “11-foot-8” bridge in in Durham, N.C., peeling off the tops of their trailers?

Or perhaps the GPS that directed a trucker at Lake of the Ozarks down a highway that’s been underwater since 1930, when the lake filled, and that now serves as a boat ramp? Ships ahoy, everyone!

I could go on – and believe me, I have plenty of examples – but the point is this:

While understanding that Alaska is far north and not southwest doesn’t solve any of this, what it and all these other problems point to is the need for better education. Yes, that means training for new truckers, but I’m also talking grade school through high school here.

GPS, like the map and the globe, is a tool that can help us understand how the country is put together. But you have to understand how those tools work to get the greatest advantage from them, and you have to apply common sense.

Frankly, the old truckers’ atlases seemed to do a better job of keeping people out of these situations. How is that, especially when GPS units often use the same map information?

My personal opinion is that the old maps required you to think, to investigate, to look ahead, to anticipate. And truckers didn’t rely on them entirely. They would call ahead to shippers and receivers for information, use the CB, ask friends who had been there before, or – God forbid – stop and ask a local for directions.

You didn’t have a device telling you – literally, with a voice, like a person, telling you – every time you’re supposed to turn. You had to figure it out.

You had to have greater awareness of your surroundings, of the landmarks and buildings you passed, to turn that printed information from the atlas into a route you actually ran on the ground.

GPS can work that way too; it can keep you on the right path. However, that’s true only if people understand basic geography, if they have knowledge of how our roads are designed, if they use common sense and if they comprehend that GPS is just a tool, and not a substitute for your own brain.

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