Satellite navigation systems send trucks down the wrong routes in Britain

Drivers end up rolling through towns on roads meant for a horse and cart. Can people please stop running into Ena Wickens's roof?

Jud Guitteau

With its winding country lanes and parish church, its 18th-century cottages and sleepy allotments, life is gentle and agreeable in this bucolic southeast English village. Or at least it was until the truck drivers started coming through.

First there was the Slovenian driver en route to Wales with a load of paper who took an improbable detour and ended up wedging his juggernaut into a tiny lane. It was stuck for two days.

Then there were the 10-wheelers that wheezed their way up Butcher's Lane, a thin ribbon of a road constructed with horse and cart in mind. One made a mess of the roof on Ena Wickens's cottage, which lies flush to the lane. No sooner had it been repaired than another truck snorted its way up the roadway and crumpled part of the roof again.

"It's such a worry," says Ms. Wickens as she putters around the garden behind her cozy Jane Austen cottage. "This last time, it was lucky I was in, otherwise he would just have driven off. There is a sign at the bottom of the road saying 'Unsuitable for large vehicles,' but still they come."

Why, exactly, do they come? The answer is to be found in the satellite navigation kits (satnav for short) that are handy for getting motorists from one location to another, but not always judicious in selecting the most appropriate routes.

Legendary examples already exist of satnav equipment leading gullible drivers astray. There have been cars driving into streams, a woman who was directed the wrong way up a freeway, and even an ambulance crew that was diverted 200 miles by mistake.

There was the bus party looking forward to a day trip to Lille in northern France that was spirited off to the less fabulous Lille, Belgium, 100 miles away by mistake.

In Britain, satnav technology is generating a second, related problem of trucks plowing unwittingly into country lanes unsuitable for anything larger than small passenger vehicles.

One driver, for instance, stranded his 50 foot-wagon up a lane for three days in Ivybridge, southwest England, until a tractor could be found to tow it out. Another driver wedged a tractor-trailer on a bridge in the same part of the country that was finally released by cutting down hedges and trees. And then there was the coach operator who became stuck on a small roadway – only to escape by driving through nearby fields.

Satellite navigation has turned one country lane in Wales into a virtual gill net, ensnaring almost every truck that comes along: One could only be set free recently by knocking down a stone wall. And last month, a Lithuanian lorry driver was stuck for four days after his vehicle became wedged on a rural roadway more suitable for sheep than trucks.

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Mereworth's unwanted encounter with modern navigation stems in part from an accident of geography. The hamlet lies close to a main freeway that runs from the port of Dover north to London and main transit routes to northern England.

Situated in Kent – the "garden of England" – Mereworth is a quaint mix of ancient and modern, an 18th-century church and castle and red-brick cottages alongside more modern detached homes. Tiny lanes thread their way improbably through hop fields and dwellings with no sidewalks. Most truckers barreling up the nearby freeway would probably have deep reservations about a set of directions that steered them into the village's serpentine streets. But not everyone is familiar with the back roads of Britain, nor always puts the right display screen on their dashboard.

"A lot of continental drivers are using systems which are not equipped for heavy vehicles," says Dennis Styles of Mereworth's parish council. "The cheaper models lead them down these narrow lanes. We have horse-and-cart roads from the early 1900s and they are now taking these huge vehicles" down them.

Villages up and down the country are howling about the sudden invasion of snorting trucks filling up tiny streets originally built for carriages. Some have even asked to be "wiped off the map."

In Wedmore, southwest England, the council wants urgent action to refine satnav software to make it more sensitive – and sensible. "It's happening on a daily basis," says council chairman John Sanderson. "We've had people's properties being damaged. There are no pavements, so big vehicles have to go close to properties. We get gridlock where police have had to come along and sort it out. When we talk to the HGV [heavy goods vehicle] drivers from the continent and ask them why they keep coming through, they say they have been sent by the satnav."

Mapping companies admit the technology is still in its infancy and acknowledge that improvements need to be made. "The road network is immense" says a spokesman for Tele Atlas, an international digital mapping company.

"GPS navigation is still a new technology, and the road network changes every year. So there's a constant updating process that needs to be done. What is happening is that haulier companies are using navigation devices that are specific to passenger cars."

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Help may be at hand, though. Tele Atlas says it has launched a more sophisticated device for hauliers that can request what vehicle is being driven and then navigate them through the most appropriate route. The national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, which produces road network data for satnav software companies, is refining its maps to show routes that big rigs should avoid. The aim is to provide a more intelligent picture of Britain's roads, which are used by more than 100,000 trucks a day.

"We want to get freight route maps recommended by all the local authorities into one consistent single format, agree on it, and make it available as part of our data," says Paul Beauchamp of Ordnance Survey.

He admits that the errant trucking problem has become worse in recent years. "There are more HGVs on the road than ever before, and more and more people are using satnavs," he says. "The more they are used, the higher the number of cases becomes."

But the trucking industry is wary of efforts to "redraw" the map to keep trucks off small roads. They warn that with the extraordinary growth in home deliveries, triggered principally by the rise in online shopping, big vehicles will still have to navigate small lanes.

"It's also worth saying that improved satnavs won't themselves solve all the problems," says Geoff Dossetter of the Freight Transport Association, an industry group that represents more than 200,000 truckers. "At the end of the day, it still comes down to the driver – if he ignores the fact he's driving off a cliff or into a pond, it's his own fault more than the satnavs."

All of which means Ena Wickens will probably want to keep the name of her roofer handy.

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