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driving concerns

I use GPS apps on my phone while I'm driving. I sometimes get instructions that are either dangerous ("Turn right now" when I'm in the middle of a bridge) or illegal ("make a U-turn here" where there's a sign indicating U-turns are illegal). It's dangerously distracting. If I get a ticket for doing something an app told me to, can I get that ticket dismissed? Also, can I sue the company that makes the app if I get in a crash? — Steve, Ottawa.

"But Siri told me to" wouldn't have worked with your mom — and it won't work with a judge.

"If you decide to follow bad advice and get into an accident or do an illegal U-turn and get caught, that's not going to get you off," says Allan Hutchinson, professor at Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto. "It's the same things as if you had a passenger in your car giving you bad directions – 'they told me to' isn't going to work."

You're responsible if you break the law while driving, no matter who — or what — told you to do it, Hutchinson says.

And Hutchinson doesn't think you could successfully sue a company if their GPS steers you the wrong way — or into an accident.

"If you got electrocuted you could sue, but for giving the wrong directions, no, I can't see how," Hutchinson says. "There were cases many years ago over whether map makers could be liable for errors, and most people say no."

GPS apps do make mistakes — and manufacturers admit that in the terms of conditions that most of us agree to even if we don't read them first.

"All of them say '…and it might be wrong because of construction, and I'm sorry if you crash,'" says Chris Schreiner, Director of Automotive Consumer Insights with Strategy Analytics, a market research company.

There are no rules in Canada or the U.S. for GPS devices and apps.

"U.S. regulators and Transport Canada understand the cost benefit of GPS," Schreiner says. "It's a much safer alternative than not knowing where your going or trying to look at a map, so they give it a lot of leeway."

Use GPS smartly

The law in Ontario allows you to program GPS devices, including phone apps, with voice commands while you're driving. But recent studies from the University of Utah showed that some hands-free systems were more distracting than picking up the phone.

"It's more and more about whizzbangs and connectivity, things like integrating your smart phone into the car – there was a car commercial where a driver was asking Siri to tell him a joke," says Karen Bowman, founder of Drop it and Drive, "The automotive industry has a huge responsibility – it can't be a matter of 'Hey, we'll put real cool stuff in the car but how you choose to use it is your responsibility.'"

Instead of giving commands on the road, set GPS directions before driving, Bowman says.

"Don't touch it until you get where you're going," she says.

The device should be safely mounted on the dash where you can see it. That way, you're not looking down onto the passenger seat to see where you need to turn next.

"And if it suddenly stops working or starts giving you directions that don't make sense, ignore it until you can safely park and reset it," Bowman says. "If you're someone who gets easily frazzled when GPS tells you to turn right but you can't because it's a one-way turn, then maybe you shouldn't be using GPS."

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