Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Why sat navs are naughty - but nice

This is an edited version of my column from the Bath Chronicle on December 18

I suspect that this time next week many people (mostly men) will be opening their Christmas presents and discovering that they have been bought that wonderful new piece of technology we call the ‘sat nav’.

I have been the owner of three of these modern day miracles over the past couple of years and heartily recommend them as a very good present indeed.


Those of you who are new to a satellite navigation system will soon discover that these clever little machines are just like small children – when they’re good they are very good but when they are bad, they can be awful. Allow me to give you a recent, pertinent example.

Last Thursday I attended a very enjoyable meal with my colleagues from our excellent newspapers, the Somerset Standard and the Somerset Guardian. The meal was in Buckland Dinham, somewhere I thought I knew pretty well and the venue (The Bell) was the same as for last year’s meal so finding it shouldn’t have been a problem. However, as is often the case for those of us who live by deadlines, I was running late.

If I went my ‘normal’ route I thought I may arrive a few minutes after the first course had been served so I decided to do what I have done on a number of other occasions and put on my sat nav in the hope that he/she (yes we do tend to personalise them), would know an alternative, quicker route to get me to the soup on time. I did this because there have been instances in the past where my sat nav has shown me hitherto undiscovered routes to get where I would normally go and thus I tend to trust its judgement.

So, I put the words Buckland Dinham into my sat nav, popped a CD into the player and waited for my sat nav to surprise me. Well it did – it surprised me by doubling (or was that tripling?) my journey time and nearly taking me to the fine city of Wells. Needless to say, the soup ended up being poured away.

You may wonder why I just didn’t give up when I realised my mechanical map was taking me in the wrong direction but the truth is, as every sat nav user will testify, they do on occasions take you what appears to be ‘off road’ but ultimately still get you where you want to be quicker than you imagined. So, on my tortuous drive through the dark streets of Somerset, I kept abusing my sat nav (and yes you do tend to do that), but I still secretly thought it had a cunning plan up its sleeve. I ignored the voices in my head that said ‘this sat nav is an idiot’ and ploughed on regardless until the thought that I probably wouldn’t get my main course in Wells Cathedral overtook me and I just abandoned my electrical assistance and went, as I should have done in the first place – by ‘my’ route.

I could relate other instances of the previously unknown condition of ‘sat nav rage’ (for instance, once in London it told me to turn right at a point which would have made me plough into a shop window), but the truth is, just like the small child I mentioned earlier, these amazing little gizmos do come up trumps far more often than they let you down. As well as usually getting you places ahead of time and keeping you informed of your progress every step of the way, they are also a pleasant companion as you are travelling along. As I get into a car before a big journey I often say say soothing words like “don’t let me down today” and I have been known to actually thank my moving map at the end of a stress-free trip.

So if you do unwrap a sat nav next week then I hope it goes on to give you plenty of happy driving experiences and becomes a real friend in the car.

But please don’t ask it to take you to Buckland Dinham . . .

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