This past Christmas, one of the hottest gadgets going was the global positioning system (GPS).

 

It’s a handy device, which not only tells drivers how to get somewhere, but the best route, and how long it will take. But it turns out those great gadgets aren’t always safe. At Marketplace, we’ve learned that programming a GPS on the road can be a dangerous distraction.

 

With the help of Durham Regional Police, we blocked off a stretch of road near Toronto and asked drivers to find directions on their portable navigators. Transportation engineer Paul Green, from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, conducted the test while we recorded every move on camera.

 

Green says drivers shouldn’t look away from the road for more than two seconds at a time.

 

“Every time you look away, that’s another time period that you’ve lost a sense of what’s happening while driving.” But in our test, drivers trying to program the GPS took their eyes off the road for much longer — one driver looks away for a full seven seconds!


So just how many people actually program while they drive? Marketplace commissioned the first poll of its kind in Canada and discovered that almost half of all drivers surveyed (47 per cent) program their GPS while driving.


That’s not allowed in Ontario, or B.C. anymore, but police say drivers are still doing it. York Regional Police Sgt. Edmond Villamere says a lot of drivers just don’t think programming a GPS is as dangerous as texting.


“You’re still pressing buttons with your hands,” he says. “Your hands aren’t on the wheel and your attention isn’t on the road.”


Green says manufacturers should design portable GPS devices so they can’t be programmed while a car is in motion — just like most GPS’s built right into a vehicle.


But that doesn’t fly with Steve Koenig of the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. He says drivers should take responsibility behind the wheel. “If a consumer is operating a vehicle … unsafely,” says Koenig, “their excuses are their own.”


Tell that to the family of Shannon Bentley. The Sault Ste. Marie woman was killed by a driver distracted by his GPS. They tell their exclusive story on Marketplace tonight.


Erica Johnson is a journalist and co-host of CBC News: Marketplace, Canada's award-winning consumer affairs show. CBC News: Marketplace airs each Friday night at 8:30 p.m. on CBC Television.