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The Lost Manly Art of Map-Reading

Mark Simpson navigates around the nostalgia and the facts about drivers and maps

I recently bit the bullet and had a clear-out in my rather cramped car. I freed up a surprising amount of space by getting rid of the yellowing, dog-eared maps cluttering it up with their obsolescence. Including a street atlas of North Yorks where I live, several city maps collected over the years (when am I likely to visit Plymouth again?) and a 2003 AA road atlas of Britain.

OK, I left one garage-bought UK road atlas in the boot of my car. But I’m not sure why, except perhaps to absorb spillages from my weekly supermarket shop. I honestly can’t remember the last time I looked at it. Certainly no more recently than any of the other maps I removed. Call it a large-scale, absorbent safety blanket.

I was a little bit sad, as I felt as if I was losing a part of my past and indeed of my masculinity. I grew up in a world where maps were something that, if you were a chap, you consulted often with a competent frown, pretending to understand them as naturally and completely as DIY and the offside rule – while wearing a square chin and a chunky wristwatch, like Richard Todd planning a daring raid on the Mohne dam.

Certainly you would much rather consult a map, even one with pages stuck together with sour milk, than ever ask for directions. Directions could be wrong, and were anyway likely to be too complicated to remember – no matter how many times the over-helpful pedestrian repeated them to you while you sat there, smiling, nodding and bitterly regretting your mistake.

Most of all, asking for them was an open and public admission that you had failed as a man.

But now of course no one needs to ask for directions, because we have a gadget in our car that will tell us where to go automatically and discreetly. And because it’s a gadget and gadgets are manly it’s OK to be told what to do by it. Even if it strands you in a raging ford or wedges you in a charmingly narrow street.

After a decade or so of widespread satnav use, and particularly the integration of satnavs into smartphones, map reading so twentieth century. It’s a lost art. Several recent surveys have suggested that most UK drivers are so reliant on satnavs they don’t know how to read a map any more.

A 2014 survey of 1150 road users by Flexed.co.uk found that 77% of people who use a satnav admit they rely on it totally on a journey – with an alarming 63% of drivers not even bothering with road signs when using satnav, let alone maps.

60% admitted they can’t even read a paper map, and only 9% said they research the route before taking an unfamiliar journey. Often they have no idea of the route they’ve taken to reach their destination, while listening to Adele really loudly.

Another survey of 2000 road users by Telenav GmbH (to promote their offline satnav Scout) published at the end of 2014 echoed these findings with 57% of all ages admitting they couldn’t read a map comfortably. But they also found that a whopping 85% of 18-24 year olds say they can’t read a map.

Certainly, like middle-aged me, most of these digital kids can’t be bothered to reach for a map, find the right page, find where they are on the page, find where they’re going to, decode the symbols and colours and navigate the best route between….

Sorry, I lost the thread there – I was so bored just typing that last sentence I had to go and check my Facebook and Twitter feed and play Angry Birds.

Perhaps most alarming of all, the same survey discovered that half of drivers don’t even wear wristwatches (you can determine North with one). The Dambusters spirit is truly dead.

These surveys usually prompt anxious headlines and editorial soul-searching about the loss of map-reading skills by a generation, and suggestions that map-reading should be included in driving tests. Obviously ‘map reading’ is some kind of code for ‘moral compass’.

A 2013 survey of 24,000 drivers by the good old Automobile Association found a very different, more traditional picture. In the reassuring words of AA President Edmund King, ‘most motorists are still turning to maps when planning car journeys even in the age of high tech navigations systems’.

Perhaps because they were slightly afraid of being told off for being slack, 63% of drivers assured the AA they had used a printed map in the last six months, compared to 60% who had used satnavs, while just over 35% of drivers said they used both satnav and an atlas to plan a route (compared to 9% from the Flexed survey). Only 17% admitted they relied solely on satnav (compared to 77%)

When it came to those lazy, lost 18-24 year olds the AA offered hope, finding that only 43% said they depended on their satnavs alone to negotiate the nation’s roads – about half the figure from the surveys a year later, and under that psychologically important 50% figure.

Now, far be it for me to suggest that the AA is worried about falling sales of its famous road atlases, but frankly, any recent survey that claims to have found that more UK drivers use printed maps than satnavs is clearly completely lost.

Even more so than 67-year-old Sabrine Moreau who in 2013 took a 1,800 mile detour through six countries after her satnav malfunctioned. She was aiming for Brussels from her home in Soire-sur-Sambre to pick up a friend from the train station but eventually ended up in Zagreb, Croatia.

And I think we’ve all been there, one way or another.

We all laugh at the stupidity or credulity of zombie drivers automatically following satnav instructions because they remind us uneasily of ourselves, but the reality is that most of the time Google and Garmin read maps much better than most drivers, male or female. Who, in the glorious pre-satnav past, would often be trying to read them on their laps while driving.

It’s time to face cartographic facts and not be distracted by the, er, legend. Printed maps are now pretty much as obsolete as driving gloves, hand-cranks and Richard Todd’s pipe. And that’s not such a bad thing.

Originally appeared on Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions blog

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