M25 closure sets London drivers up for mass sat-nav meltdown

Motorists have been officially warned to ignore in-car guidance maps during closure of M25

Motorists are being warned to ignore their sat-navs during the closure of the M25 London orbital to avoid traffic chaos. PA
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Since the ancient Minoans, humans have used the stars and the natural world to circumnavigate the globe.

Major leaps in technology are nothing new – the compass is in use since the 11th century – but with today’s GPS systems reliance on navigational skills has reached everyday redundancy.

When an event occurs to challenge modern road users by setting up a clash between conditions and technology, it is one that the phone and app-dependent traveller is now set up to fail.

A sense of direction has become so obsolete the UK’s National Highways Agency was forced to issue a warning to motorists to ignore their devices this weekend for fears of major gridlock during the closure of London’s M25 near Heathrow Airport.

Fears of five-hour delays due to people following sat-navs, not heeding diversion notices, have been sparked by the closure of an 8km stretch of the main artery into London until Monday.

Understanding how the environment affects our brain is important
Amir-Homayoun Javadi, UCL brain imaging expert

“When we have technology telling us which way to go parts of the brain simply don't respond to the street network,” said University College London experimental psychologist Dr Hugo Spiers. “In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us.”

National Highways project lead Jonathan Wade predicted many people would take use their initiative and try to use sat-navs to beat the roadworks diversions.

“There’s probably a greater risk of congestion by people just doing their own thing and thinking they can perhaps beat the signs and find a shorter or quicker route,” he said. “That will cause further congestion on some of the key junctions so please avoid doing that if at all possible.”

Our reliance on technology has led researchers at University College London to investigate whether the use of sat-navs affected brain function.

They discovered when volunteers navigated manually, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex had spikes of activity when volunteers entered new streets.

This brain activity was greater when the number of options to choose from increased, but no additional activity was detected when people followed electronic instructions.

London Knowledge triggers brain waves

They found that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers expand as they learn “the Knowledge”, memorising the streets and landmarks of central London.

Another study showed that drivers who follow sat-nav directions do not engage their hippocampus, likely limiting any learning of the London street network.

“Entering a junction such as Seven Dials in London, where seven streets meet, would enhance activity in the hippocampus, whereas a dead-end would drive down its activity. If you are having a hard time navigating the mass of streets in a city, you are likely putting high demands on your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex,” said Dr Spiers.

“Our results fit with models in which the hippocampus simulates journeys on future possible paths while the prefrontal cortex helps us to plan which ones will get us to our destination.”

Sat-nav gridlock

This weekend an estimated 6,000 vehicles an hour will be funnelled off the M25 and on to single-carriageway local A roads.

There are fears that drivers listening to sat-nav systems for alternative routes will become trapped for hours in jams.

“This weekend, it’s vitally important that drivers don’t rely on sat-navs if faced with any significant delays,” RAC road safety spokesman Rod Dennis told The National.

“While they’re extremely helpful for planning journeys in advance, it can sometimes take a few minutes for user-generated updates to appear on apps or navigation systems, especially in areas of signal black spots.

Following official diversion routes makes the most sense. While it might seem like a good idea to veer off a main road and shave a few minutes off your ETA, if you’re then stuck in traffic on smaller roads, any advantage is soon lost.”

David Barrie, a fellow at the Royal Institute of Navigation, told The National GPS technology is “vulnerable” and has its setbacks.

“Firstly the obvious problem is that batteries run out or you can lose signal, if you are using GPS on mountains or in the wilderness it can give you information that is unhelpful or dangerous, for example it might direct you off a precipice or send you through a river,” he said.

“There are more subtle problems relating to the tech itself. GPS relies on satellites flying above the earth relaying signals. It is all in the end critically depends on a signal from a satellite reaching the surface of earth and being picked up by your phone.

“The problem is satellites do not have special powers to send a powerful signal. The signal from a satellite is the equivalent to a car headlamp and that is a big problem.

“Crucially GPS is very vulnerable and you cannot rely on it. You need a back-up system.”

Russell Connell knows only too well the dangers of relying on GPS technology.

Mountain Rescue teams were called to help him when he climbed the Yorkshire Three Peaks and was using his phone to help him navigate it.

When the mist descended on Ingleborough making visibility impossible and night began to fall, his phone lost charge and he was left stranded at the top of the peak.

Luckily, he managed to guide himself down from the peak using a compass which enabled him to know which direction north was but he had no map.

He told The National people need to rely on traditional maps and not just modern technology, despite having a power bank he had forgotten his USB cable to charge his phone.

“Don’t forget your USB cable and power bank, if you do, you’ll soon regret it and your life, you family or friends' lives could be in danger from what Is essentially an admin error,” he said.

Unskilled generation

Mr Barrie believes the GPS technology is in danger of creating a whole generation of people who will lack navigational skills from understanding how to read maps to using the stars to plot routes.

“GPS has made a very profound change, because throughout all human history prior to that it was essential for people to pay attention to their surroundings and everybody understood where north, south, east and west were,” he said.

“We understood the sun rose in the east and set in the west and that if we looked at the night sky we knew where the Pole Star was and where due north was.

“Many, many people now do not know that. There are lots of young children being brought up without even the most primitive navigational knowledge, they think what is the point, I will just look at my phone.”

Dr Amir-Homayoun Javadi, who has analysed brain imaging at UCL, said sat-navs do have their limitations.

“Understanding how the environment affects our brain is important,” he said.

“Sat-navs clearly have their uses and their limitations.”

For Mr Barrie, the message is clear we need to open our eyes.

“The availability of readily available sat-nav systems has made it possible for us to navigate in a completely mindless way,” he said.

“Computers lull you into a false sense of security so we stop paying attention and that is dangerous because we are totally reliant on the information coming from the machine. It is like we have become completely blinded. People drive into rivers, because they believe what the machine is telling them to do. We are fast becoming idiots.

“We need to open our eyes and exercise our brains unless we want to lose our navigational skills altogether. The message is simple, if you want to retain navigational skills either use them or lose them.”

Updated: March 16, 2024, 4:35 AM