6 Tips to Make Navigation Apps Work Better for You | Edmunds

6 Tips to Make Navigation Apps Work Better for You

Get to Your Destination Faster and Easier


You probably use navigation apps for real-time directions and traffic information without even thinking twice about it. But did you know that popular navigation apps are actually changing traffic patterns?

There's a problem with that, however. In their attempt to minimize travel time and congestion, apps make use of every available road, but they don't necessarily differentiate between roads that are built for high traffic volume and roads that are not. The result, in many places, is unexpected bottlenecks for drivers and inconveniences for neighborhood residents.

Things got so bad last year in Fremont, California, that city leaders attempted to outwit the apps. The city tried banning turns at certain intersections at certain times of day to thwart navigation-app shortcut suggestions. As you might expect, the apps just suggested other routes, often down even smaller side streets. Similar problems have played out in cities and towns across the U.S. App developers often make an effort to work with municipalities to reduce the chances their app will recommend certain streets, such as suggesting to cities that they add speed bumps and reduce speed limits. But there are still problems.

As a driver, you can make a difference. By using navigation apps more actively, you can improve your travel time, make your drive easier, and help to keep traffic as a whole running more smoothly.

"Blindly following navigation apps is a big problem for a lot of drivers," said Harry Campbell of The Rideshare Guy blog and podcast. Campbell works with thousands of ride-booking drivers a month — the people who drive for such services as Uber and Lyft. He and his colleagues have devised ways to help ride-booking drivers better understand the most popular navigation apps.

Their lessons can help you, too. The first thing Campbell tells these drivers is to mount their phone at eye level because it makes for safer driving and easier navigation-app use. Here are five more tips that can make every driver smarter about navigation app use, based on Campbell's road-tested advice:

1. Find an App You Like and Practice Using It
Of the three most popular navigation apps — Waze, Google Maps and Apple Maps — Campbell, and the drivers he works with, rate Waze and Google Maps about the same.

"It comes down to personal preference," Campbell said. "I haven't found either app to be more reliable or to make better predictions." Waze gives drivers more information and, like the location of red light cameras and collision information, but some drivers don't like the clutter and prefer the more streamlined interface of Google Maps. Campbell doesn't recommend Apple Maps, which, he says, always seems to send drivers on strange routes and seems to struggle with addresses.

Try all three apps and see which works best for you. And then practice using your favorite so you can use it on the fly. If your car has its own navigation, throw that system into the contest as well. You may find the built-in nav is better than the apps on your phone.

2. Spend 30 Seconds Looking at the Route Overview Before Leaving
You don't want to find out at the last minute that you're going to have to cross three major roads or make a few quick-succession turns or merges. A few moments getting a general sense of the route and the direction in which you're headed will help you make better split-second decisions while you're driving — not only keeping you on your intended route but keeping you safer, too.

3. Know Your App's Weaknesses
No matter how good a navigation app is it can't replace an attentive human driver. The apps don't usually make mistakes, Campbell said, but they do have a few weaknesses:

  • High-rise buildings can throw off your GPS.
  • Apps aren't always accurate with large destination locations such as shopping malls, airports or campuses.
  • Navigation apps are notoriously bad at predicting how long gridlock traffic will take.

Know your final destination before you depart and keep track of where you are as you drive. A general basis of knowledge (such as which direction you're headed) is important, even if you're not an expert on the area in which you're driving.

4. Plan to Avoid Left Turns
Avoiding left turns is one of the best ways to be smarter about using your navigation app. Left turns cause 61 percent of collisions (compared to right turns' 3 percent). They're three times more likely to cause deadly crashes with pedestrians, and they often create congestion and other traffic issues.

Navigation apps are based on algorithms designed to find the shortest and fastest route possible, and so can sometimes be a little aggressive about left turns. Waze more so than Google Maps, Campbell said. But if you're paying attention and plan ahead, you can reduce the left turns. For example, the app could have you making two left turns across busy streets as you approach your destination, but if you plan to make a left turn one street earlier, you can then make a right turn instead.

5. Don't Accept Every Time-Saving Route Change
Navigation apps often suggest rerouting to save time. Sometimes it's a good idea, and sometimes it isn't. Knowing when to accept can make you a smarter navigation app user. A good rule of thumb: Only accept the route change when it will save you five minutes or more of travel time, Campbell said. It's usually not worth going out of your way to save one or two minutes, especially on longer trips.

Driving safely takes a lot of mental energy and real-time navigation apps can make your trip easier — if you use them smartly.

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