Is your GPS app distracting you behind the wheel?

Safety advocates and police in B.C. are concerned as more commuters rely on navigation systems and popular smartphone apps like Google Maps or Waze.

Safety advocates and police are concerned navigation systems are a danger to drivers

Safety advocates and police in B.C. are concerned about distracted driving as more motorists use navigation systems and popular smartphone applications to find their way around.

(Michelle Eliot/CBC)

Alisa Aragon, a mortgage specialist in Vancouver B.C., says she uses Google Maps to travel to meetings.

"For me, it's fantastic. It actually tells me you're going to be turning left, or you're going to be turning right. And I actually find the time estimate getting to the places is fairly accurate." 

To ensure she doesn't have to look at her phone while driving, Alisa enters her destination before starting her car and relies on voice instructions.

Alisa Aragon uses Google Maps to travel to business meetings (Michelle Eliot/CBC )

But the temptation to look at a screen or pick up a cellphone to use a GPS system has safety advocates concerned about distracted drivers. 

"Navigation apps and built-in systems are a wonderful idea," says Karen Bowman, founder of Drop it and Drive, a B.C. campaign to end distracted driving.

"However, they need to be used responsibly. That means plugging in your destination before you start driving and use the voice command function to provide directions instead of glancing at the screen."

Police issuing tickets to GPS users

In February, RCMP in B.C. are stepping up enforcement of the province's ban on distracted driving. While much of the focus has been on drivers talking and texting on phones, police say navigation apps also divert drivers' attention from the road.

Drivers using an electronic device without hands-free face a fine of $167

"We get it all the time," says Cpl. Bryan Fedirchuk of Surrey RCMP.

"I'll be like, 'You're being stopped for using your cell phone.' [And they'll say] 'Well, I wasn't talking on my cellphone. I was using the GPS unit.' It doesn't matter if you're looking at your GPS, or you're reading text messages. ... You're not allowed to do it."

Companies aware of safety concerns  

Greg Basich, a senior analyst with Strategy Analytics, has studied sales and production of in-car navigation systems.  He says demand for cars that provide navigation and real-time traffic updates is growing. But companies are trying to address safety concerns.

"They don't want the users staring at the screen and being distracted from looking at the road. What they're doing with upcoming systems is focusing more on push notifications. For example, via voice they'll do things like notify you [if] there's an accident and change your route. It's just a question of how long is it going to take for the most advanced systems that are being designed actually end up in vehicles".

Catch Michelle Eliot with "On the Move," a column on commuter life, Tuesdays at 6:50 a.m. PT on The Early Edition, CBC Radio One 88.1 FM / 690 AM.