Satnavs – directing drivers round the bend

The use of satellite navigation in commercial vehicles is growing year on year, however, while satnavs represent a step forward in technological terms, their impact is not always a positive one.

Studies published by the AA indicate that 22% of drivers admit that they have been distracted by their satnav while driving. A report published by the Royal Holloway College, London and Lancaster University has found that drivers who are subjected to multiple instructions – including from satnavs- suffer a sharp drop in their driving ability. The report writers said: “what is interesting is that people were able to follow one simple instruction without any significant impact on their driving. But as soon as they had to remember a compound instruction, consisting of two sequential directions, we began to notice a difference in their driving ability”.

The news is full of examples of the dangers posed by drivers becoming distracted by satnavs or by drivers following them blindly. Those examples range from the trivial to the very serious.

 Recently, England international footballer Andre Wisdom was forced to abandon his Porsche when his satnav mistakenly directed him down a flooded country lane.


On a serious note, Network Rail has blamed overreliance on satnavs by HGV drivers for a sharp increase in damage to railway infrastructure, particularly collisions with low bridges on roads that drivers have been directed to follow. Network Rail put the cost of the bridge strikes at around £15 million and said the incidents caused delays to passengers. A spokesman for Network Rail added: “satnavs are a great tool but they are just a tool and not an alternative for keeping your wits about you and obeying the road”.

Network Rail are in discussions with satnav manufacturers and are undertaking a project in conjunction with the Highways Agency, which involves mapping low bridges and level crossings. That data can then be fed into the software for the satnavs.

The impact of distractions caused by satnavs can be tragic. Recently a driver was convicted of Causing Death by Careless Driving and jailed for 18 months having killed a cyclist as a result of becoming distracted by his satnav. And in 2011 a four year old girl was killed in a collision near Blackpool where a driver had followed the satnav’s instruction to turn right, ignoring signs forbidding the manoeuvre, and collided with an oncoming vehicle.

The Highway Code currently provides no specific guidance on satnav use, however Government guidance says that while drivers are free to use satnavs, they are liable to be stopped and penalised if the police believe they are being distracted by them. The AA advises drivers to “trust your eyes, not your satnav” and to “watch the road not the satnav”.

The authorities do appear to be catching up with technology in this area. The local council in Bath has recently implemented a ban on the use of satnavs by taxi drivers, and councillors in Cornwall are calling for road signs that warn drivers to ignore their satnav in certain areas.


Whether or not such schemes take off nationally remains to be seen, but as the use of satnavs rises it is inevitable that issues arising from their use will remain in the spotlight.

This article was written by DWF’s Motor Prosecutions Unit; a specliast team dedicated to defending proceedings brought against drivers. To contact the Motor Prosecutions Unit, please email Lee Foulser ( or Nina Lewis (


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