GPS and Driving with Vision Loss

Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) has become a common aid to many drivers. It is particularly beneficial to bioptic drivers. It utilizes existing satellites currently orbiting in space to assist with computerized navigation in real time. 

Today’s GPS technology is constantly changing and improving, making this type of technology a good fit for some visually impaired drivers who need assistance with vehicle navigation in unfamiliar places. The display screens are now larger than ever making some information large enough to be useful when programmed and positioned correctly, but what makes GPS navigation work the best is the Voice-Turn-By-Turn feature.

Voice-Turn-By-Turn allows the user to hear navigational information rather than relying only on seeing it. It is especially helpful when street signs cannot be seen by the driver, a common problem with bioptic candidates. It provides early auditory alerts when approaching your turn and informs you in advance what direction you will be turning allowing better lane transition. These are just some of the primary benefits from GPS use.

When a bioptic driver is using the system while driving, GPS removes the task of trying to identify road signs and perhaps needing to make last minute lane changes. GPS will indicate when a turn is coming to allow the bioptic driver to make changes in lanes in advance and then when to make a turn well in advance as well.

Street signs are difficult for most normally sighted drivers and can be particularly difficult for bioptic drivers. They are much smaller than road and traffic signs. The contrast is poor as well. The white on green is a poor choice for the color and results in less contrast to the sign. The GPS will replace the need to be dependent on reading the sign. When they are driving in familiar areas, the GPS is not necessary. However when driving in unfamiliar areas, drivers can program the address needed and it will direct them to their location. 

Selecting the appropriate GPS system is important. Some cars have small or low set GPS systems built-in to their dashboard and are generally very difficult for visually impaired individuals to see. If permanently mounted systems are used, a larger monitor is needed. The GPS in our Dodge Minivan is too low and small to be used easily by any one over age 45 or any visually impaired driver. Our Honda Odyssey, however, has a very large monitor mounted high on the dash and with voice recognition controls.

The best systems for bioptic drivers are often the removable dash mounted systems that can be brought up close to the eyes to allow the driver to program it easily. Bringing it close magnifies the screen for the driver.

GPS costs have decreased significantly since the introduction to the public domain. GPS systems are now available practically everywhere and do not necessarily cost beyond the initial cost of the device (On-Star® is a service that requires a monthly or annual fee and is an exception to the typical GPS product).

If you feel that you may benefit from GPS navigation please inform your driver rehab specialist so that they can determine if this tool is a “good fit” for your driving skill level. Most driver rehab specialists can perform a GPS Evaluation during training. Formal GPS training will be needed if determined a good candidate to assimilate this with driving safely.

Note not all drivers can use this technology easily and if distraction is a factor with this equipment you may need other strategies to assist with navigation. While GPS may eliminate the task of detecting street signs, may improve navigation and improve lane changes, it may also create a new auditory distraction for some users. Patients must be evaluated foe their ability to use it safely.