Sunday, February 27, 2022

Software vs. Paper Maps

A major part of my job for the last seven years has been driving a medium-heavy truck (10-25 tons) to rural destinations, and I have had to rely on maps and apps to get me through areas that I'm not familiar with. A good portion of the area I cover is where I grew up, so I know a lot of the roads, but things change over the years and my coverage area has spread to include the neighboring counties. 

No route survives the day without change, but I have to try.
  • My home county is about 700 square miles in size, with dozens of rivers and streams, which means hundreds of bridges. Bridges have weight limits, something that doesn't affect you if driving a car but can close off a route for anything bigger. I have seen a few that are so limited that a loaded pickup would not be safe to drive across.
  • We have a couple of railroads that pass through as well. Railroad crossings aren't much of a problem, but the underpasses can be old and low. During the flooding we experienced twice in the last 10 years, hundreds of truck and RV drivers found a 12' clearance underpass on a detour route for the Interstate highway. That route was blocked by a stuck vehicle at least twice a day in spite of the nine warning signs leading up to the underpass. The pile of AC units stripped off of the tops of RV's and campers kept the local scavengers busy hauling them to the scrapyards.
  • We get ice and snow up here. Paved roads get cleared fairly fast and well, but gravel roads can be a challenge. Some of the hills are impassable for a few days after a good snowstorm, because it takes time to get plows out into the rural areas.
  • About 30 years ago the smaller counties ran into financial difficulties, and one of the cost-saving measures they instituted was “abandoning” roads that did not have an occupied home on them. A lot of shortcuts that I once used to get from point A to point B are now “Class B maintenance” or “Minimum maintenance roads”, commonly called an MMR. Minimum maintenance means no gravel, and they're the last to get the ruts bladed out. These are true dirt roads in very hilly country that has a couple hundred feet of soil on top of the bedrock.
  • Rural addresses have an E911 (Enhanced 911) house number plate on the road near the entrance. This is to help emergency responders find houses when needed, but it makes my life a bit easier.
Those are the conditions I have to deal with, so I use my experience and several aids to plot a route every morning.

Online Maps
The more remote you go, the fewer modern conveniences you can rely on. We still have areas with no cell phone coverage, and I've been in a few steep areas where I lost GPS signals. 

There are a few other online mapping services, but Garmin, Apple, Mapquest, and Google Maps are the four that most people use. Garmin is a subscription service that I've never been fond of, as their devices age out too fast and they charge too much for updates.

I don't own any Apple devices so I have very limited experience with their app, but Apple maps was the butt of a lot of jokes when they first launched due to their horrible accuracy and routing. Idiots are still blindly following their GPS app instructions into lakes and rivers, so not everything has been fixed.

I've used Mapquest and Google Maps a lot over the years. My dispatcher uses Mapquest to try to get my deliveries in the same general area because he doesn't know my county very well; it's a good start, a general grouping of locations that need to be visited that day. Once I start driving I use Google maps on my phone to get detailed routing. Both services work well on Federal and State highways, but they fail on county roads. Once you leave the paved roads, their usefulness drops by at least 50% due to the following:

  • MMR's are shown as actual roads on both, so unless you have a 4WD vehicle and like to get muddy, you'll have to find another route.
  • Neither service acknowledges weight-limited bridges or low underpasses. I am training Google to show railroad crossings because I have to stop at all of them.
  • Road construction outside of metropolitan areas won't show up.
  • New roads and closed bridges can take a year to be added to their databanks. New houses can take longer.
  • Street addresses are only about 80% accurate outside of towns.
Paper Maps
In order to fill in where the apps fail, I have maps: good, old-fashioned, paper maps. A trip to the county courthouse got me a map of all of the bridges (with their weight limits) for $5.00; the county address booklet showing every house and its E911 number was $20.00. 

If I'm hauling to fields instead of houses, I have a plat book that shows field boundaries and owners (another $20.00). We also have large laminated maps on the wall at the shop (up to $100.00 each) that are easier to use when planning a long route, since the plat book and E911 booklet are broken down by one township per page. 

I also have my personal collection of maps at home, mostly topographic maps of everything within 40 miles of home. There are plenty of places online where you can get maps; one of our authors covered some in this article. 

If you're planning on traveling outside your home territory, get paper maps and learn how to read them. They work when the power is out, and they don't require a GPS signal. Keep them updated at least every two years, as things do change, even out in the hinterlands.

We've covered map reading before; it's a dying art that require hands-on training to become really proficient. The age of electronics has tried to make paper maps obsolete, but batteries die and somebody else is in charge of the data you're receiving. Google and Apple have both been caught deleting data from peoples' devices over the years, so they are not 100% trustworthy.

If you're traveling locally, do so often. Keep yourself up to date on changes around you, as that evacuation route you planned five years ago may not be usable today.

Not being able to get there is as bad as getting lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to