Just. . . No Words

Photo by Troy Mortier on Unsplash

The headline sounds like a reference to a scene from The Office: “North Carolina father dies after GPS led him off nonexistent bridge”. The only real differences between this article in the Daily Mail and the venerable TV sitcom is that Michael Scott only got wet and that he was not a father. The accident is certainly unfortunate and sad, but the focus on who is to blame is both perplexing and maddening. According to the piece, the bridge in question had been washed out for nearly a decade and there is no clear answer to what entity was or should be responsible for securing the site. The man’s family is understandably traumatized, but for them to look exclusively at external causes ignores the obvious issue that GPS does not make people do anything.

Anyone who has ever used a GPS or online map service should be aware that these systems are not always up to date. Some rural roads might not see a Google Maps Street View truck for years and some of the more obscure side roads may never be mapped. The same goes for GPS: sometimes even relatively major changes in fairly busy areas can take a while to be updated. A quick check of other internet reports revealed the address of the accident and another quick check of Google Maps showed that the last Street View update for this tiny lane in Hickory, North Carolina was 2012, the year prior to the bridge being destroyed. The last update for the northern side was 2019 where the washed-out bridge can clearly be seen from several hundred feet away. Even though the last update was also 2012, the view from the opposite intersection also makes it hard to imagine how someone could miss a large hole in the middle of the road, even in less-than-ideal weather conditions.

The family’s position that this was a preventable tragedy is, however, certainly accurate. According to the article, this particular strip of pavement existed in a kind of legal limbo as it was not under the auspices of any particular entity, public or private. The corporate entity that had once been responsible for the bridge had apparently dissolved some time ago and its ostensible successor has claimed it is not responsible for its predecessor’s neglect. The town, county and the state have also washed their hands of the situation because it was (and apparently still is) considered private property and so are not maintained or even secured by any government entity. Yes, the street was blocked at one point or another, but the 2019 Street View indicates it was only a metal construction barricade that could be (and apparently was) easily removed. Would a Jersey barrier or concrete bollard have been a more effective barricade? Absolutely. Would a simple chain-link fence have been better than nothing? Certainly. At the end of the day, though, acting as if the absence of a proper barrier was the sole or even a major contributing factor in this misfortune is intellectually dishonest.

I am not trying to discount this family’s loss or try and blame the victim. The fact that this bridge had been neither repaired nor properly blocked off is a colossal failure on the part of the law. The fact that the navigation system seems to have failed is, if true, a serious oversight on the part of the supplier. The fact that a late model Jeep Gladiator failed to protect its driver from a relatively small drop into a shallow creek is worthy of investigation. All of these things played a role in this father’s death, but we should also wonder how someone fails to see a gaping hole in the middle of the road, even at night, even in the rain. I can only assume the stretch is darker and the hole less visible than what we can see from old mapping images and photographs of the scene in the daylight. Perhaps the driver was doing everything right except blindly following his GPS instructions, but even that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is at fault.


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