Driving directions: for when Google Maps just won’t cut it

A lost man trying to find his way. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock.

Navigation apps are not always reliable, especially in rural areas (ain’t no Google Street View cars driving around Butternut Island, people). And successfully giving directions is tricky.

“People give directions like they’re trying to tell a robot what to do,” says Ford Burles, who studied the cognitive neuroscience of spatial orientation at the University of Calgary. So when you get a phone call from actual humans who are actually lost, be prepared. Ask them to describe their surroundings. Not helpful? Get them to return to a major road and reset from there. And if they’re really lost, tell them to find an identifiable spot—so you know exactly where they’ll be—and to stay there while you drive out to get them.

This also might be a cue that your driving directions need updating. Providing directions in a few formats is helpful; have a set that uses cardinal directions, and a set that has identifiable landmarks (“turn right at the big red barn”). Pick things that are permanent and distinct—a tall church is better than a tree—or send photos of unique points along the route. Consider how things will look at night and from different directions.

“People assume directions are like a recipe, like everyone can start from the same spot, but that’s not always the case,” says Burles. “It doesn’t have to be the fastest route; aim for what is easiest.”

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